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Mixed Bag for North Carolina’s Fisheries

MOREHEAD CITY – The state’s commercial fishing harvest, including two fishery mainstays, blue crabs and shrimp, experienced declines in 2004, according to harvest data recently released by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.

At the same time, recreational fishing trips in coastal waters continue to expand, resulting in a record-high catch.

The 2004 commercial harvest of finfish and shellfish totaled 134 million pounds, valued at $79.7 million – an 11-percent decrease from the previous five-year average of 149 million pounds. Landings fluctuate for a variety of reasons – availability of seafood, weather, market demand, prices, low-cost imports, the number of people fishing and harvest restrictions all impact the amount of seafood harvested. Each of these factors came into play during North Carolina’s 2004 fishing year.

Menhaden landings, which vary significantly from year to year, have historically ranged from 42 million pounds up to 300 million pounds. One of the reasons this large fluctuation in harvest occurs is because there are only two processing plants on the East Coast, one in North Carolina and one in Virginia. There are times when the fish are landed at the North Carolina plant, and there are instances when the menhaden are landed in Virginia. 2004 had the third lowest menhaden catch on record at 50.6 million pounds, impacting the state’s overall catch.

Blue crab harvest was at 32.6 million pounds, compared to the previous five-year average of 40.6 million pounds. Shrimp landings were 4.9 million pounds, down from the previous five-year average of 8.1 million pounds. Trip data show fewer crab pot and shrimp trawl fishing trips were made in 2004. The higher cost of fuel, the lower market value of shrimp due to imports, and the scarcity of crabs and shrimp, all contributed to decreased effort and landings in these fisheries.

The top-five species commercially harvested were:
By Value*
Blue Crabs (Hard) $20.2 million
Shrimp $9.4 million
Summer Flounder $ 7.6 million
Atlantic Menhaden $4.5 million
Southern Flounder $3.9 million

By Pounds Landed
Atlantic Menhaden 50.6 million
Blue Crabs (Hard) 32.6 million
Atlantic Croaker 12 million
Shrimp 4.9 million
Summer Flounder 4.8 million

*Values are ex-vessel, which is the amount fishermen are paid for their catch.

Other commercial landings down from the previous five-year average include amberjack, bay scallops, catfishes, soft blue crabs, black drum, red drum, southern flounder, red and snowy grouper, harvestfish, Spanish mackerel, monkfish, river herring, striped mullet, white and yellow perch, porgies, speckled trout, gizzard shad, sharks, dogfish, beeliners, and weakfish.

On a brighter note, the state’s oyster harvest was 69,479 bushels – 24,814 bushels over the previous five-year average of 44,666 bushels. The increase in oysters is most likely attributed to higher levels of rainfall than in previous years, which created better growing conditions.

Increased harvest quotas for two recovering stocks – summer flounder and striped bass - resulted in higher landings in 2004. Summer flounder landings topped out at 4.8 million pounds, a 45-percent increase over the previous five-year average, while striped bass landings increased to 911,473 pounds, a 57-percent increase over the previous five-year average.
Compared to the previous five-year average, other increased commercial landings in 2004 were bluefish, butterfish, peeler crabs, croaker, dolphin, American eel, Atlantic and king mackerel, sea basses, sea scallops, scup, hickory shad, squid, swordfish, and bluefin tuna.

2004 landings that remained relatively stable compared to the previous five-year landings include bonito, cobia, garfish, groupers (gag, scamp), grunts, hog snapper, jacks, pigfish, American shad, sea mullet, sheepshead, red snapper, spot, spadefish, stone cars, tilefish, triggerfish, little tunny (false albacore), bigeye and yellowfin tunas, and wahoo.

Commercial Effort Summary:
Year Active Fishermen Pounds Harvested Fishing Trips
1999 5,242 153,739,425 252,873
2000 5,031 154,229,116 259,746
2001 5,076 137,166,669 262,079
2002 4,694 160,164,722 230,618
2003 4,352 139,425,054 213,539
2004 4,255 134,094,431 194,527

On the recreational front, the number of estimated hook-and-line fishing trips in Tar Heel coastal waters increased to 7 million in 2004, a 7-percent increase over 2003. The additional trips contributed to increased catch estimates totaling 24.5 million pounds – the highest recreational catch estimate on record.

In recent years, recovering populations of striped bass created a rapidly developing recreational winter fishery in the Atlantic Ocean along the Outer Banks. To capture data on this emerging fishery, collection of recreational hook and line estimates were expanded to cover the months of January and February for the first time in 2004. Growth in the striped bass recreational fishery, along with enhanced sampling efforts by the Division of Marine Fisheries, contributed to a more accurate recreational harvest estimate of 5.6 million pounds of this species.

The top-five fish recreationally harvested in 2004 by weight were:
Species Pounds
Striped Bass 5.6 million
Yellowfin Tuna 5.2 million
Dolphin 2.9 million
Spot 1.8 million
King Mackerel 1.2 million

Estimated recreational effort:
Year Active Anglers Pounds Harvested Fishing Trips
1999 1,293,051 18,041,060 4,555,039
2000 1,811,725 21,220,463 6,090,985
2001 1,978,508 23,869,793 6,559,792
2002 1,755,283 18,020,846 5,562,885
2003 2,087,788 21,752,173 6,589,503
2004 2,073,237 24,905,130 7,083,841

The estimated harvest numbers for people who hold the Recreational Commercial Gear License also experienced a drop from 764,898 pounds in 2003 to 640,704 pounds in 2004. There was a slight decline in the number of RCGL trips from 110,792 in 2003 to 109,638 in 2004. The RCGL allows recreational fishermen to use limited amounts of commercial gear to harvest seafood for their personal consumption.
The top-five fish harvested by RCGL gear in 2004 by weight were:
Species Pounds
Spot 252,291
Blue Crab 112,088
Flounder 87,484
Shrimp 43,604
Striped Mullet 36,022

Visit the DMF’s Web site at to view harvest statistics by species and by year, or go to to download the annual fisheries bulletin. For information on commercial harvest statistics, contact Don Hesselman by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling 252-726?7021 or 800-682-2632. For information on the RCGL harvest statistics, contact Chris Wilson by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling 252- 946-6481 or 800-338-7804. For information on recreational hook-and-line harvest statistics, contact Doug Mumford by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling 252-946-6481 or 800-338-7804.
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