MOREHEAD CITY — State fisheries managers have released a new overview of commercially important fish stocks, and a commercial fishing advocacy group and the state branch of a recreational fishing conservation nonprofit seem supportive of its results.
The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries released its 2018 fisheries stock overview Monday. According to the DMF website portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/sso-archives, the data is used to prioritize development of fishery management plans and subsequent plan amendments.
One highlight of the overview is a finding that, according to the most recent stock assessment completed earlier this year, the southern flounder stock is overfished, meaning its stock has dropped below a certain threshold and is undergoing overfishing, which means the fishing effort is more than the spawning stock can sustain.
As a result, fisheries managers are working on Amendment 2 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan. This amendment, if the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission adopts it at its meeting Wednesday through Friday, Aug. 21-23 in Raleigh, would implement measures to reduce both the commercial and recreational harvest by 62-72%.
According to division statistics, commercial watermen landed about 903,000 pounds of the fish in 2018, worth about $3.8 million. It’s long been one of the most valuable fisheries in the state.
N.C. Fisheries Association President and commercial fisherman Glenn Skinner said his statewide seafood industry advocacy nonprofit has been working with the DMF and the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission, the rulemaking body that develops commercial fishing regulations, on this amendment.
“Hopefully they (the management measures) will work better at rebuilding the stocks than previous management measures have,” Mr. Skinner said.
Meanwhile, Coastal Conservation Association N.C. Executive Director David Sneed said it will be interesting to see what develops from the proposed management measures.
“We’re hearing a lot of anecdotal reports people have been catching a lot of flounder this summer,” he said, “so they’re questioning the stock assessment methods. But what they need to remember is we recently had a hurricane.”
Mr. Sneed was referring to Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in North Carolina in September 2018. Due to the storm, commercial fishermen were unable to get out on the water for some time, and the flounder were temporarily driven away until the storm passed.
Another highlight of the 2018 stock overview is the report on the blue crab stock. Mr. Skinner said blue crabs are “North Carolina’s most important commercial fishery.”
According to DMF, the stock is overfished and undergoing overfishing. The DMF is developing Amendment 3 for the Blue Crab FMP, which may be adopted in early 2020.
“We support efforts to make it (the blue crab fishery) sustainable again,” Mr. Skinner said.
Mr. Sneed, meanwhile, said blue crabs are primarily a commercial fishery, so his recreational fishing-based nonprofit didn’t have as strong an opinion on it.
“It’s certainly a concern (the state of the crab stock),” he said, “and we support efforts to get that under control.”
The DMF said a benchmark stock assessment for spotted sea trout is underway. This assessment coincides with the scheduled fishery management plan review.
The prior stock assessment from 2014, indicated that this stock is not overfished and is not experiencing overfishing. Meanwhile, Mr. Skinner said he hasn’t seen any of the results from the new, ongoing assessment.
“We’ve seen increased pressure from recreational harvest (on spotted sea trout),” he said. “We hope that won’t push it (the fish stock) to overfished (status).”
Mr. Sneed had no comment on the sea trout stock.
The DMF said research shows the striped bass fish stock in the Central Southern Management area, which includes stocks in the Tar/Pamlico, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers, isn’t a self-sustaining population. It said landings have consisted largely of hatchery-raised striped bass; however, in 2018, agency data suggested there have been two recent naturally-spawned year classes.
To provide additional protection for these non-hatchery fish and to increase natural spawning stock biomass, the DMF and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission implemented a year-round commercial and recreational season closure in coastal and joint waters of the Central Southern Management Area. Mr. Skinner said the fisheries association supports these measures.
“It’s our understanding the closures were to give them (the natural year classes) time to spawn a couple times, so we hope they’ll do that again,” he said.
Mr. Sneed, meanwhile, said CCA-NC has been pushing for several years for action on estuarine striped bass management.
“We’re going to try and see if we can get the natural stock to return,” he said.
The final highlight from the overview was the status of striped mullet. According to the DMF, after near-historic low landings in 2017 triggered a review of this stock, striped mullet landings rebounded, and no management triggers were met in 2018.
The most recent stock assessment, completed in 2018, indicates that overfishing is not occurring on the striped mullet stock. Mr. Sneed and Mr. Skinner think this is a good sign.
“They (DMF) looked at it (the stock) last year and decided to give it another year to see if it would rebound,” Mr. Skinner said. “So we’re glad it did.”
The DMF said in its overview announcement it’s continuing efforts to make its annual stock overview easier to navigate and more informative for the public.
In this year’s overview, the division no longer includes a one-page summary on each species, but alternatively links directly to the more thorough report for each species in the annual FMP Update.
“We are making this change to provide the public with a more in-depth review of both the management and stock status for each species,” said DMF Biological Review Team lead Lee Paramore.
The FMP Updates include all the information that was given in the one-pagers in the past but also provide a more comprehensive view of long-term trends in catch, biological data and management.
Last year, the DMF began using the stock assessment determination terms of overfishing and overfished/depleted in lieu of the more subjective categories of viable, recovering, depleted, concern and unknown.
In 2017, the division altered the format of the report to clarify the role the state plays in management of each species by separating state-managed species from those cooperatively managed through a federal or interstate entity. In the 2018 report, data for all recreational fishing activity monitored through the Marine Recreational Information Program has been updated based on the program’s new methodology.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.