05.10.2013

Gill Netting Provides a Safe, Highly Regulated Source of Fish

In Alabama, people from all walks of life enjoy Alabama Gulf Seafood throughout the year. And we take pride in knowing that our seafood is caught, processed, and sold here at home.

One thing we don’t often consider, though, is just how our seafood gets from the ocean to our plate.

Gill net fishing, or simply gill netting, is a popular method of commercial fishing and has become an industry standard for the Gulf Coast and fisheries around the world. The process involves a long net—typically 12 feet tall and up to 2400 feet in length—made of monofilament webbing that catches schools of fish as they try to swim through.

This process is a mainstay in Alabama Gulf Seafood’s fishing industry, and it plays a big part in our successful harvests.

“A great portion of the fish available to consumers in restaurants or seafood shops is gill net caught fish,” reported Chris Blankenship, director of Alabama Marine Resources and program administrator for the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission (ASMC).

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the gill netting method is the fact that bycatch (non-targeted species that accidentally get caught in commercial fishing nets) is greatly reduced when using this method. This is a positive for both commercial fishermen and environmental activists.

“It’s one of the most efficient ways of reducing bycatch,” said Brent Wallace, owner and operator of Wallace Seafood Trader and member of the ASMC. “By law, they have to go with a certain mesh size. If the fish is too small, it’ll swim through. If the fish is too big, it won’t stick in it.”

Reduced bycatch and increased harvests of targeted fish have allowed Alabama’s commercial fishing industry to thrive. According to Blankenship, 99 percent of Alabama’s Mullet, Spanish Mackerel, Flounder, Sheepshead, Ladyfish, and Menhaden are hauled in with gill nets. Black Drum and Croaker provide additional large gill netting hauls, according to Wallace.

The gill netting method is still controversial in some circles because of the perceived belief that it can be destructive to fisheries. But in actuality, 18 of the 21 coastal states in the U.S. allow some form of gill net fishing, and Alabama employs effective regulations to ensure the prosperity of our fisheries.

Controlling mesh sizes is a constant and effective regulation, as Blankenship notes. Additionally, fisheries are effectively regulated by limiting the number of participants and closing certain areas to protect spawning aggregations of fish.

This biggest regulation, however, is licensing. Specifically, if you don’t already have a gill netting license in Alabama, you’re out of luck.

“This is a limited entry fishery,” said Blankenship. “If you did not have a license in 2008, when a gill net reduction bill passed, you cannot ever have one. And if you fail to purchase a license in any year, you lose the right to purchase one in the future.”

These restrictions, as Blankenship notes, have caused the number of commercial gill net license holders to drop from 260 in the mid 90’s to just 79 today.

Even with the current regulatory system, gill net fishing is a crucial component to the prosperity of Alabama Gulf Seafood and Alabama’s fishermen.

“What we’re harvesting is a renewable resource, a natural resource, that brings dollars into Alabama,” said Wallace. “We feed a lot of people.”