Reporter's note: This article was corrected June 11 at 11:13 a.m. to correct a typo.
BEAUFORT — State fisheries managers plan to reduce the harvest of southern flounder – commercial and recreational – by 62-72% to address problems with the spawning stock.
The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission met for a special meeting Thursday at the Beaufort Hotel on Lennoxville Road in Beaufort.
The commission met to select preferred management options for Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 2, which is being created to rebuild the southern flounder spawning stock and address the status of the stock. Public comments, both at Thursday’s meeting and prior, were mixed, with some opposed to the proposed amendment, some in support and one or two speakers who seemed neutral.
Despite this, the commission approved 5-4 selecting as its preferred management options the options recommended by N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and N.C. Department of Environmental Quality staff.
The amendment now goes to the DEQ secretary for review and comment. The amendment will come back to the MFC for during its regular meeting Wednesday- Friday, Aug. 21-23 in Raleigh. The commission may take action on final approval for the amendment at that time.
The amendment is proposed to meet statutory requirements to achieve a sustainable harvest in the southern flounder fishery, to end overfishing (when fish are being harvested beyond a sustainable threshold) by 2021 and rebuilt the spawning stock by 2028. To achieve this, DMF southern flounder species lead Michael Loeffler said the DMF and DEQ jointly recommend the following management measures:
• Establish seasonal closures this year by area for the commercial and recreational flounder fisheries to reduce the harvest by 62%.
• Establish seasonal closures by areas in 2020 for the commercial and recreational flounder fisheries to reduce the harvest by 72%.
• Reduce commercial anchored large-mesh gill net soak times to single, overnight soaks where nets may be set no sooner than one hour before sunset and must be retrieved no later than one hour after sunrise the next morning in the Neuse, Tar/Pamlico rivers and the Albemarle Sound areas previously exempted.
• Recues the maximum yardage allowed in the commercial anchored large-mesh gill net fishery by 25% for each management unit, unless more restrictive yardage is specified through adaptive management through sea turtle or sturgeon incidental take permits.
• Prohibit the use of any method of retrieving live flounder from pound nets that cause injury to released fish, including picks, gigs and spears.
• Incorporate management measures from Southern Flounder FMP Amendment 1 its Supplement A into Amendment 2.
• Authorize continued development of a Southern Flounder FMP Amendment 3 and more robust management strategies.
Not all the commissioners support the amendment and one of the main reasons seems to be the potential effects on commercial fishermen. MFC member Mike Blanton, who sits in one of the commercial fisherman seats, said the preferred management options, if adopted with the final approval of the amendment, would affect smaller commercial fishing operations the most.
“I don’t see how the commercial guys are going to get out of this,” he said. “I think there’s a lot more reasonable solutions. These fish need a break…but this stock needs something besides this slow trickle of death to the commercial fishery.”
The need to coordinate with other state’s fishery managers was the other main concern expressed by MFC members. MFC member Doug Cross, who sits in a commercial industry seat, said his biggest concern was how other states manage their flounder fisheries, which mingle with North Carolina’s.
“If we see no improvements (to the stock size) with this (amendment), the finger points to the others states, which we have no control over,” Mr. Cross said.
During Thursday’s meeting, about 15 people spoke during public comment. Most who spoke on the proposed flounder amendment were opposed to it.
Commercial fisherman Randy King said he hasn’t seen any decreases in his catch in recent years.
“I had the biggest catch last year that I’ve had since 1996,” Mr. King said. “I don’t know if it’s just my area, but it’s my living.”
Seafood dealer George Leone said he thinks the proposed amendment is “inappropriate.”
“To reduce a person’s income derived from the flounder fishery by 62% this year and then 72% for the following years until the stock has been deemed ‘rebuilt’ is abhorrent,” Mr. Leone said. “To put this into play just before the season starts is unconscionable.”
Carteret County Commissioner and commercial fisherman Johnathan Robinson said on behalf of the county commissioners they’re all concerned about the potential economic effects of the proposed harvest reduction.
“Commercial fishing has become a shadow of what it once was,” Mr. Robinson said. “The threshold proposed is unrealistic.”
N.C. Fisheries Association Executive Director Glenn Skinner said he’s been talking with commercial fishermen, who’ve told him they knew the reductions proposed in Amendment 2 would be significant.
“Their concern is when it will happen this year,” he said. “We’d ask you to do it in December. We need (the flounder harvest) this year. A lot of people still have hurricane damage. We need to be able to reinvest in the industry. Reductions have been made before (to the flounder harvest). They may not have been enough.”
Coastal Conservation Association N.C. President Dr. Chris Elkins was one of the few who spoke in favor of the amendment. He said he knows it isn’t an easy decision for the commission.
“We know from division biologists only 3% of ocean flounder landings are southern flounder,” he said.
CCA N.C. member Clark Hutchinson said past MFC members have “failed to act” to restore the flounder stock.
“You need to act on this,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “That’s all I ask you to do. Follow the management, follow the law.”
Inshore fishing charter Capt. Ron McPherson seemed neither to entirely oppose or support Amendment 2.
“The 62-72% reduction seems to be awful,” he said, “but it seems to be what some people think is acceptable. If you can back it off to 52%, please do that…the implementation, please put it off. Granted, (the fishing) isn’t as good as it was 10 years ago, but it’s not bad. Let’s try to make this as painless as possible.”
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.