What is the Health of North Carolina Fish Stocks?

Many claims have been made by organizations and individuals that North Carolina’s coastal fisheries management has failed its citizens and as a consequence, fish stocks have declined dramatically, resulting in poor recreational fishing experiences and negatively affecting our state’s economy. Those opinions have led to legislative bills proposing to make some species “gamefish,” whose designation would only allow harvest of those fish by recreational fishermen and bills recommending substantial revamping of fisheries conservation programs. Are these claims of depleted resources true? Are our fish stocks “dwindling,” as some groups claim and drastic action needed to “bring our fish populations back?”

First, some background. I have studied coastal fishes in North Carolina for over 40 years and been closely involved in conservation of state and federal fish populations during that span. I am also a lifelong recreational fisherman that grew up fishing in our state’s rivers. Scientific experts in fisheries from all over the world note that fish populations are highly variable and will fluctuate greatly depending on the environment and in some cases, fishing. Objective fishermen also know this, and refer to the cyclic nature of fish stocks. Second, many of the fish that occur in North Carolina and are harvested by our fishermen migrate or move to and from other states. So, fish in North Carolina can be, and sometimes are, affected by fishing in other areas and the environment of those areas. Third, the USA has one of the strongest or most restrictive fisheries conservation programs in the world and North Carolina is consistently recognized by managers in the USA as having one of the most intensive data-gathering  and proactive fisheries management programs in the country. Furthermore, the majority of the fish that are harvested in North Carolina are conserved under federal jurisdiction. Many folks do not realize that the conservation of nearshore, migratory ocean fish, such as Atlantic croaker, bluefish, and grey trout (weakfish) and many others fall under the jurisdiction of a federal agency, called the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The ASMFC is a congressionally-authorized compact of 15 states that determines conservation measures for Atlantic coast migratory fish/shellfish and can find states out of compliance with their measures.

The people and groups that claim North Carolina’s fisheries are overall in a state of decline point to the number of species classified as “Concern” and/or “Depleted” in the annual Stock Status reports produced by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) as proof of failed conservation policies. The DMF is the agency that collects and uses scientific data to determine if species are overfished or if fishing is causing a population decline. They also prepare fishery management plans, with input from stakeholders, which contain all scientific information on a species and recommend conservation actions or management measures on the fisheries that harvest those species. The DMF has been required by the Fisheries Reform Act to prepare fishery management plans on all recreationally and commercially important species for the last 20 years. North Carolina can develop its own fishery management plan such as one for blue crabs, produce one that complements a federal plan such as the one for red drum, or bundle species in a multi-species plan that covers the fishes being managed by federal agencies such as the ones for spot and Atlantic croaker.

Stock assessments are the scientific tools used by experts to best determine the population status of fish, incorporating all relevant biological and catch data. These assessments are attempted for each species that comes under state or US jurisdiction, including North Carolina, unless extenuating circumstances prevent such. The stock assessments estimate fish abundance or biomass and compare those estimates to science-based reference values that define a desirable fish population situation (again based on science). If a population estimate is below the desired referenced value that species is deemed overfished and if the fishing rate is higher than the desired reference value, then overfishing is occurring on that species. Overfished (depleted due to fishing) or overfishing (fishing at too high a rate to sustain the population) are the usual terms used worldwide to discuss fish population status. Sometimes fish populations become low or depleted primarily due to natural conditions and stock assessments can help us determine if those changes are due to fishing or caused by natural conditions (i.e., predation or diseases). Nations that invest in their fisheries conservation programs such as Ireland, USA, New Zealand and Australia, to mention a few, utilize these terms and tools to help guide objective fisheries conservation programs.

So what does the scientific evidence and other pertinent information indicate about the status of North Carolina’s fisheries resources?

North Carolina is one of the premier recreational fishing states in the USA. Based on federal data, North Carolina is second only to Florida for the whole country in number of coastal fishing trips and numbers of fish caught in both 2014 and 2015. In the last ten years North Carolina has consistently ranked as one of the top four states in the nation for coastal recreational fishing trips and number of fish caught. North Carolina also ranks as one of the top five states for numbers of recreational coastal anglers, usually only second to Florida.

Annual Stock Status reports from the DMF do not indicate failed fisheries management policies based on fish population status assessments. In a report to the North Carolina General Assembly in April 2016 the DMF reported that the numbers of fish and shellfish populations that were classified as “viable” had been trending upward since 2011.

The federal or National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Fish Stock Sustainability Indices, which monitor the performance of recreationally and commercially important fish stocks in the USA has been trending upward since its inception in 2000 (17 years). The Indices increase when the status of a fish stock is determined and the fish population’s status improves (either no longer subject to overfishing or is not overfished, or population is rebuilt). NMFS reports that the increases in the Indices reflect that considerable progress has been made in sustainably managing fish stocks in the USA. By law, North Carolina has to comply with federal measures and has never been found to be out of compliance with a federal fisheries plan. Most of our important fish species are conserved under federal plans.

So what are the claims that our fisheries resources are in a downhill spiral based on? Groups and individuals point to the DMF’s own analyses that shows only 5 of 22 species that are managed by the state are classified as “Viable” and also point to the fact that 17 species are classified as “Concern” or “Depleted”. Let’s look a little closer at the facts.

DMF produces annual stock status reports for 31, not 22, species or species groups and have done so for 19 years. Only four fish species out of the 31 species or species groups are managed solely by the state! Remember most of North Carolina’s fish species migrate up/down the Atlantic coast and fall under a federal agency’s jurisdiction.

The DMF uses classification categories of Viable, Recovering, Concern, Depleted or Unknown. The supposition when a species is classified as “Concern” is that fishing levels are causing the state’s experts to be worried about a species’ population status.  However, the DMF sometimes classifies a species as “Concern” when the best available science shows that the species is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. In doing so, they consider other factors besides fishing levels when making their determinations. Two examples are Atlantic croaker and Albemarle Sound Striped Bass stock status determinations. Also, some species are classified as “Depleted” when experts have determined the population is mainly affected by factors other than fishing (such as grey trout or weakfish), or fishing has been stopped on that species for numerous years (such as Atlantic sturgeon and river herring).

The individual fish species listed in the 2016 DMF Stock Status Report were examined to see if overfishing was occurring, if the stock was overfished, and if our fish populations were indeed in a depressed state. The DMF report was based on 2015 data, and this article has been updated with more recent, scientifically-reviewed population assessments if available, such as with black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, spot and Atlantic croaker.  A total of 75% of the species or species groups (DMF lumps sharks-40 species; snapper/grouper-75 species) in NC whose population status can be estimated are not overfished.  A total of 99% of the species or species complexes in NC whose population status can be estimated are not experiencing overfishing (fished at too high a rate). The snapper/grouper complex and shark complex were counted as being overfished and that overfishing was occurring, even when a minority of the species within those complexes was determined to be overfished and fishing was occurring at too high a rate. Besides those two species groups only one species, summer flounder, is experiencing overfishing, and overfishing occurred even when measures had been in place to sustain the population. Additional restrictions were deemed necessary and appropriate action was taken by state and federal agencies to reduce the fishing rate. The case of the well studied and responsibly managed summer flounder reflects how variable fish populations are, and how effective conservation systems respond to those changing situations.

How is management of species under federal jurisdiction going? The NMFS reports that out of 233 species that federal agencies manage and whose population status is known, 84% are not overfished. Out of 313 species, whose fishing rates could be determined, 91% are not being fished at rates resulting in overfishing.

Now does that mean everything is okay? Of course, the answer is no. We can always improve. There are several species in North Carolina that need additional or better data to determine their population status. A total of 8 species, such as southern flounder, striped bass in the Pamlico/Neuse and sea mullet could not be assessed for effects of fishing or a new stock assessment was forthcoming. There are several species where commercial and recreational fishing have been stopped for over 10 years, such as river herring and sturgeon, yet the populations have not recovered. Population assessments need to be done more frequently. More or better data need to be collected as to why some species’ populations are not increasing, even though responsible fishing restrictions based on science have been put in place, such as gray trout and American shad. We do not have adequate management data on sheepshead, white perch, etc. Economics of fisheries should be better studied.  Habitat protection could be improved. I could go on.

However, the take home message for our country and our state based on science is that we have responsible fisheries conservation programs that are founded on data; and based on that science, our fish populations are being sustained. Few fish populations are overfished and overfishing is not occurring in most of our species. North Carolina has robust fisheries data collection programs supported by taxpayers, one of the best in our country and those data are used to produce fisheries management plans for our state and often heavily leaned on when producing federal fisheries management plans. North Carolina’s leaders had the foresight to create a governance regime where fisheries management plans must be developed for all our important species, stakeholders have frequent opportunity for input, and the plans must be updated regularly to ensure sustainability. These cornerstones should ensure that seafood is sustainably provided to consumers and sustainably harvested by recreational fishermen like myself both now and for the future.

Jess Hawkins has a Master of Science in Biology. He was the former Chief of Fisheries Management with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. He is currently an instructor with the Duke University Marine Laboratory and North Carolina State University CMAST Laboratory teaching Marine Fisheries Ecology.

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