Cape Fear Netters, Striper Anglers Clash

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A striped-bass rebuilding project by N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries biologists, the U.S. Army Corps of engineers, and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is being undermined by commercial fishermen, according to some recreational fishermen in the lower portion of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington.

Biologists have been stocking fish into the river for years; lockmasters have operated the three locks at dams on the river at an increased frequency to move fish to upstream spawning habitat; hybrid stocking into upstream lakes has been curtailed to prevent dilution of the striped bass spawning effort; and a state-funded tagging program is studying migratory patterns of a fish prized by commercial and recreational fishermen.

The increasing profile and perhaps an increased number of striped bass in the Cape Fear River have led to more fish being caught by recreational anglers and fishing guides, who have no other winter gamefish to catch from inshore waters during January and February. However, commercial fishermen apparently also have increased their efforts to catch stripers.

“It makes me want to kill every limit I catch,” said Fisher Culbreth, a Carolina Beach guide. “There are commercial gill nets blocking access to all of my fishing areas at the Exxon Dock, the Brunswick River and across the mouth of Town Creek. We release all the fish we catch because I have to depend upon them being there day after day. But once the commercial fishermen set their nets in those places, the fish are gone.”

According to Rich Carpenter, DMF Southern District manager, more commercial fishermen are setting more gill nets for stripers in the Cape Fear River.

“The commercial striper limit is five striped bass per day with a minimum size of 18 inches, but they must be landed in proportion to other fish,” he said. “Commercial fishermen also may land seven red drum per day with a slot limit of 18 to 27 inches in a proportion to other fish. The other fish caught by commercial anglers from that area of the Cape Fear are mainly catfish.”

The commercial quota for striped bass is 25,000 pounds for the Pamlico, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers. The average commercial landing during the striped bass season during the period from 1994 to 2000 was 1,500 pounds. The commercial season runs Jan. 3-April 30, unless the quota is reached earlier.

“The Cape Fear River commercial striped-bass landings through Jan. 26 were 1,285 pounds,” Carpenter said. “The good news is the proportion of white bass/striped bass hybrids in the catch is decreasing rapidly.”

That could mean more striped bass are spawning successfully, the stocking program is becoming a success, or the hybrid population decline is a result of no replenishment. It could also mean that there are more fish being taken from the river than ever before by commercial fishermen, no matter whether efforts at restoring the population are having the desired effect. No one really knows whether the striped bass population of the Cape Fear River is in good shape, bad shape or remaining the same.

One thing that is known for certain is the commercial landings are on the increase. Carpenter said the increased number of commercial fishermen setting gill nets for stripers had resulted in an increase in Division of Marine Fisheries enforcement activity.

“Enforcement officers have increased their presence in that area,” he said. “We also checked a few gill nets. We checked a net that had one gar and one striped bass and that seems to be typical. It's unusual for a gill net to catch more than a couple of stripers.”

A fish or two per gill net set seems to be a typical catch. Anglers setting drift nets for shad also occasionally catch striped bass -- one of the original reasons for establishing a recreational season and commercial fishing limits for Cape Fear striper.

“I think the commercial striped-bass limits show they're not meant to be a targeted fish to be exploited commercially,” Culbreth said. “It seems like it should be a bycatch fishery. But there’s a net behind every island and in the mouth of every feeder creek.

“When nets block access to prime recreational fishing areas, it makes (stripers) a targeted fishery. You can’t blame recreational fishermen for getting mad. It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

“It might be legal to set nets in those top recreational fishing places, but it sure isn't ethical. If there’s a net right beside the boat, and I have a client lucky enough to still catch a fish, how do I convince him to let it go so it can swim right into the net?”

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Leslie Owens