One of three Division of Marine Fisheries meetings was held at the New Hanover County Northeast Regional Library to ask the public for ideas for funding its sea turtle monitoring program.
The meetings were a requirement mandated by Senate Bill 402, passed earlier in 2013, which provided the division $1.1 million to fund its At-Sea Observer Program.
Opening the meeting with a presentation, Chris Batsavage, protected resources section chief for the division, explained the program is a requirement of North Carolina’s permit to allow a limited number of interactions with threatened or endangered wildlife, per the federal Endangered Species Act. This includes endangered Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles, as well as threatened green and loggerhead sea turtles.
The turtles can easily become caught in commercial fishermen’s gill nets, particularly in the inshore fisheries in and around N.C.’s coastal estuaries. Locally, those fisheries to which those permits apply include the Cape Fear River, Intracoastal Waterway and its adjacent sounds.
In addition to the one-time funding appropriation, the bill increased licenses and fees by 25 percent for commercial fishermen. However, it fell short of the 50 percent increase the division requested as a dedicated funding source for the observer program.
The program will face a $600,000 budget shortfall in 2014, leaving additional permit fee hikes up to the North Carolina Marine Fisheries’ Commission, which Batsavage said can take up to two years to implement new rules.
Options discussed included different permit fee increases, as well as the option of not funding the program at all, which Batsavage explained would likely result in the federal government closing the fisheries. Responding to a question from a legislative staffer regarding charging fishermen directly for the observers’ costs, license and statistics section chief Don Hesselman responded that the cost averages about $585, while the average haul for a fishing trip averages only about $200. Although he conceded the permit only requires a minimum of 7 percent of trips to be observed, he said the added burden could put state fishermen out of the job.
“The same fish can be caught in different ways,” Hesselman said. “If they had to pay directly, they would be competing against fisheries that don’t have to be observed.”
Batsavage added during his presentation that in addition to monitoring turtle interactions, the program provides fisheries data used by universities as well as other fisheries management programs, which cannot be obtained otherwise.
The public comment period for funding options ends Nov. 1, after which the division will compile input received and issue recommendations to the state legislature by March 1, 2014.