It's the height of commercial flounder season along the North Carolina Coast, but gillnet fishing boats have been banned from heading out. That's because a large number of sea turtles are still swimming in those areas.
The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries has temporarily closed areas in four Northeastern sounds and southern coastal waters to the fisheries. The agency was uncomfortable with the number of interactions fishing boats were having with endangered sea turtles since September.
The state’s incidental take permit allows a limited number of interactions with sea turtles in various areas. If an area reaches that limit, the fishery is shut down for the rest of the season. (The season runs September through August.)
Marine Fisheries Division closed the waters preemptively, to prevent those limits being reached.
Chris Batsavage works with the state Division of Marine Fisheries. He says they want to give the water time to cool and for large number of sea turtles to disperse before fishing resumes. There’s no way to know when the fisheries will be reopened.
“Admittedly, for the parts of the sounds that closed, it's really their peak fishing time of year,” Batsavage says. “So, it came at a bad time, unfortunately, but we really didn't have any other options available.”
North Carolina Fisheries Association President Jerry Schill says his group supported closures when sea turtle populations were low.
“But when they start to come back – and they are – when they're recovering, there are so many sea turtles that you can't avoid them at all,” Schill said. “So, no matter what you do, it's just one restriction after another.”
Schill says the fisheries closure is a burden, and is hitting the fishermen hard.
“I've seen on Facebook where some of them have started advertising their gear... Some of them just can't make it anymore.”
The Fisheries Association filed a federal complaint about Endangered Species Act enforcement this summer.