Charter captain saves sea turtle from certain death, caught in a gill net

Charter captain saves sea turtle from certain death, caught in a gill net
Charter captain saves sea turtle from gill net (Source: Jeff Willamson, Charter Captain)

OAK ISLAND, N.C. (WECT) - On a typical sunset cruise last week in Brunswick County, Charter Captain Jeff Williamson saw something that caught his eye and it just didn’t look right. It was a cluster of gill net floats.

“Typically when you put a gill net out the floats are stretched out. These were all bunched up. I told my crew I said if you guys got a minute, I want to get that out of the water because it doesn’t need to be there,” said Jeff Williamson, Charter Captain.

Williamson believes someone had to cut a section of the gill net off and leave it and it got caught in some debris. The gill net was found near the damaged Oak Island pier at town park.

As Williamson pulled the gill net out of the water he saw the belly of a sea turtle. It was entangled in the net.

“It had the webbing tied around it’s neck. We got it in the boat and was able to get the knife in between the netting and the turtle’s neck cut away so we freed the turtle.”

Sea turtle saved from a gill net
Sea turtle saved from a gill net (Source: Jeff Willamson, Charter Captain)

The turtle was freed but needed help breathing.

“When I used to work commercial shrimp boats, we’d always lift up on the shell to help them catch a breath. After I lifted the shell and took some of the pressure of his chest it definitely took a deep breath and then it took two more as I lifted, pretty cool.”

Williamson says if they hadn’t found the sea turtle it definitely would have died.

“If we hadn’t intervened that night because it was sunset it was about to get dark and the turtle could not, it was low tide and it was under water so high tide it would have been further underwater and it wouldn’t have come back.”

Williamson released the sea turtle away from the area and it swam away.

North Carolina is the only state that still allows gill nets to be used on a widespread commercial capacity.

There are been attempts to ban the use of gill nets. Many see them as death traps for anything and everything that gets caught in them.

This is a response from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries when asked about gill nets.

The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries takes protection of sea turtles very seriously and has undertaken education efforts over the years to teach commercial and recreational fishermen ways to minimize interactions. Gill net fishing is one of many human activities along the coast that can interact with and harm sea turtles. Other activities that can harm sea turtles include dredging for boat channels, beach nourishment, driving on the beach, other types of commercial and recreational fishing, littering, and boating.

The division has also implemented numerous management measures that reduce sea turtle interactions and unwanted fish bycatch in commercial fishing gear.

Regulations specific to gill nets include attendance requirements (fishermen are required to remain close to their nets); time of day restrictions; area and season closures; minimum mesh size requirements; setback requirements; identification marking requirements, and yardage restrictions.

Most recently, regulations were implemented for the small mesh gill net fishery restricting yardage, requiring attendance and closing areas to stationary nets.

The division has been reviewing Marine Fisheries Commission rules pertaining to small mesh gill nets and plans to present options for rule changes to the commission in November.

Additionally, North Carolina’s estuarine gill net fishery is managed under incidental take permits for sea turtles and Atlantic sturgeon, issued to the state by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The permits outline conservation plans to limit takes of these species, listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, to authorized levels.

A condition of the incidental take permits requires the state to maintain certain levels of observer coverage – division staff either go out on the boats with fishermen or observe from gill net fishing from division boats. The majority of sea turtles and Atlantic sturgeon observed are released alive and unharmed. If the number of observed interactions with these species approaches the number of allowed interactions, the division can close certain areas to gill net fishing.

Also, as a condition of the incidental take permits, the division requires fishermen to obtain an Estuarine Gill Net Permit to use any anchored small or large mesh gill net in internal coastal waters. This provides a list of fishery participants that staff can use to contact fishermen for observer trips. As of Aug. 31, 2020, 1,956 fishermen had the permit.

Fisheries management can be complicated, and gill net management is no exception. They can vary within the state by, by region, by time of year, and by many other factors. Some of the variation in these regulations, such as seasonal closures and gear modification requirements, are meant to reduce regulatory discards. However, stock assessments do account for live and dead discarded fish in commercial and recreational gear. This information is figured into fisheries management decisions.

Although gill net regulations vary from state to state, North Carolina is by no means the only state that allows gill nets fishing. Of the 15 states on the East Coast, only Florida and Pennsylvania ban gill nets outright.

Patricia Smith

Communications Director

Division of Marine Fisheries/Division of Coastal Management

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