North Carolina’s Gill Net Problem (And How We Can Fix It Together)

North Carolina has a serious problem.

We are destroying our fishery with gill nets.

If you don’t know what a gill net is, it’s a floating wall of monofilament-line, designed to snare fish by their gills as they try to swim through the net mesh.

In most cases, nets are left out overnight and are pulled up in the morning, and anything that has become entangled in them is pulled into the boat.

But the net doesn’t discriminate or know regulations.

Anything that swims into it while it’s deployed is entangled, and in most cases, will thrash itself to death.

Gill nets routinely catch juvenile fish that don’t meet minimum size requirements, as well as mature fish that are over slot regulations.

These fish that fall outside of what commercial fishermen are legally allowed to keep are labeled as “discards”.

They are ripped out of the net and thrown back into the water.

Because these fish have been ensnared by their gills, removing them from the net without damaging their gills is virtually impossible.

Because of the violent removal process, independent gill net studies show that “discard” mortality rates (death after being in a gill net) average between 64%-78%.

Even if these fish survive the initial netting, they most likely die later on.

The simple fact is that gill nets kill almost everything that they come in contact with (including non-fish, such as birds, endangered turtles, and even dolphins).

Don’t believe me? Here’s a small glimpse of gill nets in action:

north carolina gill net
north carolina gill net
north carolina gill net
Source: Capt. Allen Jernigan
north carolina gill net redfish
north carolina gill net redfish

You wouldn’t think that a few commercial fishing gill nets pose a huge problem to an entire fishery, but once you look at how many fish these nets harvest, you start to see a big problem.

While only a few states still allow gill netting (with heavy restrictions), North Carolina is the last that uses gill nets in such a wide-spread commercial capacity.

North Carolina has the highest commercial harvest of any other state in the USA for Red Drum, Speckled Trout, and Southern Flounder.

We aren’t #1 by just a few pounds either, we blew the competition out of the water by HUNDREDS of THOUSANDS of pounds (which is definitely NOT a good thing)

I’ll show you.

Using 2017’s data (most recent year for all 3 fish available) here are the facts.

Keep in mind, these numbers don’t even include the discards!

Speckled Trout Commercial Landings By State

north carolina speckled trout landings

Starting with Speckled Trout (aka Spotted Seatrout on this list), commercial landings in NC were 5.4x more than the next state on the list (Virginia).

Red Drum Commercial Landings By State

north carolina red drum landings

For Red Drum, commercial landings in NC were 3.3x more than the next state on the list (Mississippi).

Southern Flounder Commercial Landings By State

north carolina flounder landings

For flounder, numbers for NC were not reported to NOAA, so they are not on this query, but you can see the top state on this list only had 226,886 pounds.

But once we dig into the North Carolina Commercial Landings Statistics (from The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality), we find that we beat the #2 state by almost 6x more at a whopping 1.39 MILLION lbs. of flounder caught (see below):

2017 Southern Flounder Commercial Landings (by weight [lbs] and value [$])

north carolina flounder landings

This overharvest has started to severely affect the recreational fishing industry as well.

In a foreboding example, take the southern flounder that we harvested 1.39 million lbs. of in 2017…

This past year in 2019, it’s season was closed entirely to recreational fisherman after the NC Division of Marine Fisheries classified the population stock as overfished.

For reference, NC recreational fisherman had kept less than 200,000lbs (see below)

Recreational Catch Statistics for Southern Flounder (2017)

north carolina recreational flounder landings

The Solution

north carolina gill net meeting

The reason I’m showing you all this data is because it’s clear that North Carolina’s fisheries need your voice.

All of the decisions behind NC Fisheries Management are decided on by the DMF Committee, but they make these decisions based on feedback that they receive during public meetings (which are currently dominated by commercial fisherman).

Realizing that very few recreational anglers had been attending these meetings, several guides, fellow Salt Strong Insiders, and I traveled to New Bern to attend one of these quarterly meetings and have our voice heard.

This is the exact speech to them:

“My name is Wyatt Parcel and I am the Community Director for Salt Strong, as well as a very avid recreational angler south of here in Wilmington.

I have driven over 2 hours tonight to have my voice, as well as the hundreds of recreational anglers that are members of the Salt Strong Community, heard.

It is clear that there is a problem with the way that our fishery is being managed. We would not have the closures and current problems if this was not the case.

Members of my Community, guides, and I have observed the negative effects of this mismanagement, starting with gill nets.

We have documented (and I have pictures and videos if anybody doesn’t believe me)

  • Parasite infested redfish with open wounds and scars, clearly caused by gill nets (and in some cases, with netting still caught in their gills).
  • We’ve watched as nets decimate our creeks, hauling hundreds of trout out daily, leaving only dead fish that didn’t survive the netting.
  • We’ve watched flounder’s heads be ripped off by commercial fisherman removing them from nets, only to be discarded back into the ocean because they weren’t even legal size.

North Carolina only has one study for discard mortality from gill nets, and the only species that was evaluated was Summer Flounder.

In 2018, State observers recorded a 24% discard mortality of flounder in gill nets.

This number does not include shrimp trawl bycatch or even statistics of fish that died after being re-released.

But we know from several scientific studies conducted with these same nets in other states, the stress and injuries gill nets cause actually kill MORE fish AFTER the release.

Studies show a true discard mortality rate somewhere between 64-78%.

While redfish and seatrout discard mortality has not been studied at the same level, the trend appears to be the same based on what we recreational anglers have seen.

Banning gill nets is the first step but when you look at how many fish they take, there’s an even bigger problem.

Stats from the most recent year of data available (2017) show that North Carolina harvested more redfish, speckled trout, and flounder than any other state on the list. Let me share some facts with you:

For our speckled trout: In 2017, North Carolina commercially harvested almost 300,000 thousand pounds of trout. That’s 5.4x greater than the next state on the list.

For our state fish, the Red Drum: Our 2017 harvest was a little over 186,000 pounds. That’s 3.3 times greater than the next state on the list. To put in perspective, recreational anglers harvested less than 25 thousand lbs.

For our recently closed Southern Flounder: In 2017, commercial harvest totaled over 1.3 million lbs. To put perspective, that was almost 10x more than recreational anglers harvested that year.

This level of commercial harvest is killing our fisheries.

You can see these trends in your own data.

The commercial limits need to come down.

Stop gill netting. Stop overexploiting the fish stocks.

I am the recreational angler that NEEDS TO BE HEARD because the recreational fishing industry in NC is valued (at the low end) at 4 BILLION dollars, while the commercial fishing industry in NC is valued at a mere 78 million.

North Carolina has the potential to be a world-class fishery, but with this style of management, we might live to see the day where we don’t have a fishery at all.

Consider these comments in upcoming legislation. I am the recreational angler.

Thank you.”


gill nets north carolina

If YOU want to see a change in what’s happening in North Carolina’s Fisheries, please show up to these meetings to have your voice heard. If you’d like to see the list of meetings for the DMF, visit this link below:

If you cannot be there in person, please at least submit your comments via email (they read all public letters and emails during these meetings) to the DMF Committee Chairman Rob Bizzell at:

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Dale King
8 months ago

Yet the commercial fishing industry puts the blame on dead discards from the recreational angler. Yeah, right.

1 year ago

First of all, y’all are blowing the situation way out of proportion. Nature takes care of itself and even though we may take millions of pounds of fish out of the seas every year there are still some to catch the next season. Y’all should know more than anyone that fish populations are resilient. God put the fish in the water for us to catch and eat. If we were taking too many out of the water they would disappear but after many years of gill net fishing we still see a huge population. We rarely ever catch a red fish or speckled trout on accident. We can’t catch em anymore where we are but the numbers haven’t skyrocketed since we stopped catching em like it would seem. This is a way of life for many people. It goes against American heritage to stop catching our fish and then buy them from overseas where they work their people for little to nothing. It may be true that dolphins get caught but the picture you posted is a dramatic example of one extremely tangled up. This happens extremely rarely. They are smarter than you give them credit for. Get your facts right before you start attacking our living by throwing out articles like this and using pictures to pull in the heartstrings of ignorant people. Think about your net ban push the next time you sit down in a sea food restaurant and they tell you their food is shipped overseas instead of it being fresh well taken care of fish and shrimp from your local friends and neighbors that put their life’s on the line every night and day to provide our country with food

Louise Parsons
9 months ago
Reply to  Heath

Nature could take care of itself but man is making it much more difficult with many pressures aside from gill nets. Take a recent sewer spill into a watershed that feeds into the Pamlico Sound. Add to that a hog farm spill from a waste lagoon. The constant habitat destruction from land clearing and development along coastal regions degrades the water quality. When the environment is degraded it’s more difficult for the seafood stocks to replenish. Buying fish overseas is a terrible practice but so is shipping our fish to other countries. Keep it local!

Debra Fox
8 months ago
Reply to  Heath

There are still some fish? So do we allow the use of gill nets until there are no fish? I grew up in Carteret County and I have seen the extreme decline in fish. I dislike the term recreational fisherman versus commercial. I don’t fish to recreate I do it to feed myself. Why can commercial strip what is left but those of us who fish to put food on our tables can’t?

John doe
2 years ago

This post is funny because your trying to save thes fish but yet I watched marine fisheries biologist set a net over night by okacoke and they left it overnight the next morning 1 of our fishermen found found it and there was a 128 dead red drum in their net. Explain that but you cant because they cover it up and kept it quiet. We were the ones the clean up there net

2 years ago

The reason the landings vary is because of restrictions. If the Chesapeake bay wasn’t so polluted they would see more fish in Virginia it’s not because of over fishing and that has been proven.

stone asa
2 years ago

me an my dad are fushing right now on our boat a half mile of shore we we saw a floating boey and out of curiosity pulled it up hunteds of dead spanish gray trout flounder spot blue fish even a few king died in the net i pulled a shark out and realeased it and it luckily made it, this needs to be stoped!

Doug Scott
2 years ago

Banning Gil net fishing will destroy livelihoods of the few remaining commercial fishermen. Not to mention the few remaining supporting businesses and fish houses. I live in Atlantic and have observed this practice first hand. Correct sized netting does not result in the % of discards you state. Very few reds are caught as a result. Fishing is also for sustainance. I am routinely offered free fish by kind and generous commercial fishermen.

Have you considered that our coast is unique. That we have bigger sounds, and more miles of coastline to fish…possibly better conditions…all resulting in higher yields than other states? Without commercial fishing how do you propose all residents on NC have access to fresh trout, mullet, flounder, spots, croakers, and even redfish?

BTW I am a recreational fisherman with a $60K bay boat. Let’s not be selfish or greedy…either recreational or commercial

2 years ago
Reply to  Doug Scott

Amen Doug. I’m a commercial fisherman and have worked with biologist in state and federal levels of fisheries management and my education and experiences say this data the salt strong community is putting out here is incorrect and sounds like a direct threat to the livelihood of our fisherman and seafood industry, including a threat to some of the top restaurants in Wilmington!

Jeffrey DeSantis
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike

Commercial fishing poses a threat to the fisheries the same way commercial hunters did with wildlife. I wonder how one commercial fisherman can have such broad access to the fish yet I can only keep 1? I have fished the Lower Cape Fear River for 45 years. Four things are killing this fishery. One is the NC State Ports. The deepening of the river with explosives and large ships traveling too fast throwing impressive wakes has and continues to destroy estuarine habitats. Two is The Brunswick Nueclear Plant. The plant gets it’s cooling water from an estuarine location in the river. How many eggs , fry and other small animals get boiled by this thing every year? Third is pollution. As more people move here there is more stuff going into the river. I have not seen any eeelgrass here for at least 30 years. Fourth is Commercial Fishing. The fisherman care only about how much they can catch. One Shrimp trawl kills finish by the thousands every day they work God only knows what gets caught in a gill net. How long can a dead Speckled Trout sit in 80 degree water before its trash? Certainly not all night.
The time has come for everyone to admit that wild stocks cannot keep up with commercial demand. Particularly in an environment where other states have severely restricted commercial activities thus increasing the demand on the NC Fisheries. The need for farming seafood is long overdue. If you can’t sell wild venison , how is it you can sell wild fish?

Louise Parsons
9 months ago

I completely agree with everything you have said. Farming of seafood in a sustainable clean environmentally friendly needs to be taken seriously. With so much focus on alternative energy to save the planet I am confused why this hasn’t taken off. I guess bottom line there just isn’t enough economic incentive.

David Chance
2 years ago

I go to Louisiana regularly to fish for redfish and trout. So do thousands of other recreational anglers. They had a gillnet problem in Louisiana that was decimating their fisheries and they finally were successful in banning this technique after many years of persistent activity from guides and recreational anglers. The fisheries have recovered dramatically, supporting a 5 fish limit for reds and a 25 fish limit for trout. At the same time the spillover revenue by the influx of recreational fishermen has put thousands of guides to work, supports hundreds of hotels, restaurants, sporting goods shops, sightseeing, entertainment, the list goes on. Recreational fishing provides a much broader source of income for the state treasury and a much greater variety of jobs. The gillnet industry is demolishing our fisheries and is supported by short sighted people that don’t understand or care about the economic reality or the damage to the ecosystem.

Brian Libonati
2 years ago

NC need to get with the times and stop Gil Nets….

2 years ago

I’m a proud commercial fisherman with one of the best speckled trout seasons on record, hard to believe since y’all claim this species is overfished. I also see plenty of anglers overflowing at the boat ramps, each boat with 3 to 4 anglers each. This is happening all over our coastal towns across the state. Obviously, they are catching fish in abundance or there wouldn’t be so many people fishing. There is no doubt that recreational fishermen catch far more fish then commercial fishermen. I’m not against the recreational fishermen and believe that there is room for us all. Unfortunately the greed of others wanting it all to themselves is placed above the livelihoods of hard working Americans trying to make an honest living to support their families. Net bans destroy jobs and sometimes whole communities. Let’s not place leisure activity (most rec fishermen) above jobs that support families across our state!!!!

2 years ago
Reply to  Clint

Total and utter bullshi_ , ALL NETTING IN N.C MUST BE BANNED.

2 years ago
Reply to  Clint

You are correct Clint. While I was attaining my degree in fisheries and wildlife All the data pointed to recreational being the large harvester and presented more of an impact than commercial. Facts are facts.

Jeffrey DeSantis
1 year ago
Reply to  Clint

Clint to suggest that hook and line fisherman keep more fish than commercial fisherman is plain delusional. NC Marine Fisheries stats clearly debunk such a ludicrous claim.

Drew Danko
2 years ago

Hi Wyatt,
When I recently wrote you about Lockwood-Folly and fishing pressure I did not know you were so heavily involved in the gill netting problem. I am extremely glad to know there is a fighter like yourself doing what you can. I read all the comments and replies. If at all possible could you update us on what progress has been achieved,or direct me to available resources. I’m specifically interested in what tactics/strategies have been tried and found successful in NC. With the pandemic I would not attend any meetings, but would try to do so in the future. I look forward to hearing and learning more from you on how we can defeat these gill netters. Drew Danko


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