BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — B.A.S.S. opposes Alabama House Bill 258, which would allow use of gill nets on Guntersville, Pickwick, Wheeler and Wilson, all important sportfisheries on the Tennessee River, according to Gene Gilliland, national conservation director for the organization.
“While research has shown that commercial netting impacts on sportfish populations are usually minimal, the social and economic benefits to the state and the region from these world-class bass fisheries are too great to jeopardize and far outweigh possible economic gains from commercial fishing,” Gilliland explained. “However, we recognize that at some point in the future, commercial netting may be the only tool available to combat invasive species,” he added.
He and other biologists fear that non-native Asian carp will find their way upstream into the TVA reservoirs and negatively affect bass fisheries in the lakes.
Gilliland advocates studies to determine the best means of controlling invasive carp, and “if that research shows netting to be the best available tool, then the agency should pursue legislation to permit netting under strict protocols that include adequate enforcement measures to prevent abuse and harm to sportfisheries,” he said.
The bill passed the Alabama House by an 80-16 vote, but then met with overwhelming public opposition, especially from northern Alabama, just as the Senate began to consider it.
Actually, a net ban has existed for decades, but it wasn’t enforced by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) until 2012.
Curtis Jones, a state deputy commissioner of conservation, told the Times Daily newspaper of Florence that the agency hasn’t taken a position on the bill. “We don’t support it, and we’re not opposed to it,” he said. “We can live with it.”
Fisheries chief Stan Cook added that “use of gill nets fished within the constraints of appropriate regulations does not pose a threat to the game fish populations that support recreational fisheries. This position is based on a number of scientifically conducted studies that have been undertaken in Alabama and other southeastern states.”
He also pointed out that gill nets were being used in the state from 1977 to 2012, which “coincides with some of the best recreational fishing years that have been experienced on these impoundments.”
Rep. Lynn Greer of Rogersville, the bill’s sponsor, added that healthy sportfish populations became established in these impoundments during a time when gill nets were allowed. “We have shut down a very good industry,” he said on the House floor in arguing for once again allowing gill nets.
Greer proposed a similar bill in 2013, which passed the House but died without a vote in the Senate.
In the past, the nets were used to harvest mostly catfish and buffalo. Paddlefish possibly would be an added target this time, Gilliland suggested, since the species is highly prized for both its meat and its eggs.
But even with paddlefish, commercial harvest can’t come close to the value of recreational angling, particularly bass fishing, in Alabama.
According to a study commissioned by the Alabama Bass Trail and conducted by the University of Alabama at Huntsville, the sportfishing is worth about $853 million annually. And even if the risk to bass is only slight, a vocal majority of those who spend that money don’t want gill nets in their fisheries.
Should the Senate pass the bill and Gov. Robert Bentley sign it into law, ADCNR will place a moratorium on the use of gill nets “until we have taken under consideration opinions and recommendations from all interested commercial and recreational anglers,” Cook said.
“Initial use of nets would be heavily regulated and would allow for the collection of fish data from net captures.”