Trotline safety bill stalls out in Tennessee legislature

By: - March 6, 2023 6:00 am
(Photo: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency)

(Photo: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency)

An effort to regulate trotlines — unmanned fishing lines studded with hooks that are strung across some Tennessee waterways — has stalled in the Legislature, frustrating paddler groups who say they pose a safety hazard on the state’s increasing crowded rivers and streams.

Rep. Paul Sherrell and Sen. Paul Bailey, both Sparta Republicans, earlier this year introduced a bill that would regulate the lines’ placement and establish a right to sue by anyone who died or suffered injuries as a result of becoming entangled in them. 

Last week, Sherrell abruptly pulled the bill from a committee even as witnesses from Memphis and northeast Tennessee were waiting to testify on its behalf.

It is not yet scheduled to be heard again in the House. Sherrell did not respond to a message left with his office. 

The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission in December amended regulations for the use of trotlines at the request of water safety experts and paddler groups, including a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary expert.  The new regulations include requiring trotlines be visibly marked, checked by their owners at least once every 24 hours and limited to stretch three-quarters of the way across a stream.

Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, abruptly pulled a bill to regulate the safety of trotline — unmanned fishing lines studded with hooks — from a committee agenda even as witnesses from across the state waited to testify.

The commission oversees the work of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which is charged with regulating and enforcing rules on most of the state’s waterways. The agency, whose state funding consists largely of fees paid by anglers, boaters and hunters, has been pressed to be more responsive to other increasingly popular recreational activities, such as kayaking, which do not generate revenues for TWRA.

TWRA’s new regulations do not go far enough, said Andrea White, southeast regional chair for the American Canoe Association.

On Friday, White called it “shocking” that the trotline legislation was pulled after expert witnesses had traveled hundreds of miles to testify. 

Among them was Courtney Archer, who has previously testified that her 22-year-old son, Brandon, drowned on the Buffalo River after becoming entangled with a trotline after jumping in for a swim. Another witness, Scott Fisher, faced criminal charges after cutting a trotline that entangled a kayaking student. A judge later dismissed the case.

There is no reliable data on how often paddlers, swimmers or others run into trotlines, a traditional form of fishing in some communities — mostly for catfish —that entails stringing heavy-duty lines across streams, creeks and rivers that are studded with large hooks and often difficult to see. 

A regional chair for the American Canoe Association has accused officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency of “misrepresenting” facts about a trotline bill rather than addressing safety concerns.

TWRA tracks only incidents related to boating: there have been 69 reported boating incidents investigated by TWRA — 44 of them fatal — since 2011, according to data compiled by the agency’s staff last year. None of them involved trotlines. Brandon Archers’ death was not included in TWRA’s data; he was swimming at the time of his death and TWRA officials pushed back on the allegation a trotline was responsible, noting official reports say he was entangled in fishing lines, not trotlines. 

White has accused TWRA officials of “misrepresenting the facts about this bill to legislators rather than addressing the safety concerns of national watersports safety experts who live and work in Tennessee.”

A spokesperson for TWRA declined on Friday to answer whether TWRA had taken a position on the bill.

Emily Buck, the spokesperson, noted the agency had previously amended trotline rules to address concerns shared by the paddling community.

“The change created uniformity with commercial fishing regulations for trotlines and prohibits stringing a trotline from bank to bank,” she said.  “We maintain the position that those changes are sufficient to continue the safe use of trotlines.”


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.