- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

North Carolina waterman Britton Shackelford wasn’t the least bit happy with my Aug. 26 column, “ASMFC’s weakfish assessment is scary.”

He sent a long e-mail that said he was the president and a founding member of the North Carolina Watermen United and that he sits on the board of the North Carolina Fisheries Association and that his family has been involved in fishing since 1670.

“I am also an avid recreational angler, and I make my living charter fishing,” wrote Shackelford, who suggested that if I were a real man, I would admit that I was wrong.

Well, Capt. Shackelford, I’m man enough to question how a commercial waterman also can be an avid recreational fisherman and sportfishing charter captain. In our neck of the woods, the Chesapeake Bay, most sport anglers are opposed to people who set pound nets, gill nets and other contraptions that get rid of the same fish we recreationals seek.

The North Carolina waterman claims that for more than 10 years the commercial sector has warned that the stocks of gray trout, or weakfish, were in trouble and needed attention.

When I originally suggested that it wasn’t the recreational angler who was to blame for the slow disappearance of the gray sea trout - which fisheries management bureaucrats are forever pointing a finger to - and that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission leans toward the commercials, Shackelford wrote: “Commercial fishing is reliant on economic factors. If we can’t catch enough [gray] trout to be economically worthwhile, then we aren’t going to do it. Our gear is very expensive, and we are going to be sure what we are setting on, and it is going to catch what we want it to catch and what we build it to catch. It doesn’t aimlessly wander around and catch whatever happens to stagger into it.”

He also denied that the ASMFC was pro-commercial. Instead, he blames a small shark and a diving bird on the disappearance of the weakfish.

“The number one food for spiny dogfish and cormorants in the state of North Carolina is [the] gray trout,” Shackelford wrote. “This is documented. Both of these species are at all-time highs, and the amount of food they require is staggering! [The sea trout are] eaten by a bird that consumes 3 pounds of food a day and a shark that is the most insatiable in the ocean,” he added.

Desmond Kahn, a biologist with the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife, said in a phone call that my column made a number of good points. But Kahn said there’s a lot of confusion about recruitment of the gray trout.

In an e-mail, he wrote: “The production of young-of-year weakfish has held up fairly well so far. Since 90 percent of weakfish become sexually mature at age 1, the various stocks have been able to keep the production of young-of-year high. By the term recruitment, however, we usually refer to the numbers of fish that become available to the fishery (recruit into the fishery). In this case, they have to attain the minimum size of 12 [inches] to 13 [inches] in most states. These numbers have declined significantly, which indicates that the survival of young-of-year fish to the legal size (size of recruitment) has declined greatly. The evidence we have indicates this decline in survival was due to natural causes, not fishery causes.”

Then comes Rick Neumann, who frequently writes for the Fisherman Magazine, a Mid-Atlantic weekly.

“I thought your piece about sea trout was spot-on,” he wrote and recalled other parts of the world where “fish are to be taken on hook and line. Period. It frosts me that so many fisheries management types in our country are so allergic to common sense.”

Norman Hendrickson of Bowie wrote, “I remember the days of jigging for gray trout… but it has been well over 15 years since I have even heard of a recreational angler snatching one out of the water.” Hendrickson fervently hopes that marine fisheries managers will become more resource-oriented and not worry so much about commercial fishing interests.

*Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Mueller’s Inside Outside blog can be found at www.washingtontimes.com/sports.

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