By Glenn Skinner
February 17, 2021
“More to Come”
The North Carolina Wildlife Federation recently published an article authored by Sarah Hollis entitled “North Carolina Fisheries Floundering”.
In the article Hollis presents her version of the “facts” regarding what she claims to be the “(mis)management” of Southern Flounder in NC. The information Hollis provided for her readers may be “just the facts” as she claims but she only reveals some of the facts and presents them in a very misleading way. For instance, she points out that the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan (FMP), adopted in 2005, implemented measures to achieve a 15.1% harvest reduction for the commercial flounder fishery and a 30.5% reduction for the recreational fishery. While this is true, she never mentions that when the next stock assessment was completed in 2009, it was determined that the commercial measures had successfully reduced harvest, but the recreational reduction had failed and recreational harvest remained near the time series high. Despite the fact that the commercial harvest reduction had resulted in a healthier stock by reducing fishing mortality and increasing the Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB).
Even more encouraging at the time was the fact that the Spawning Potential Ratio (SPR) was at 19%, just 1% below the overfished threshold of 20%. Unfortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel soon faded away as the NC Marine Fisheries Commission chose to raise the overfishing threshold to 25%, placing us back at square one.
With the overfishing bar raised, an additional harvest reduction of 20.5% was needed to end overfishing, leading to the adoption of Amendment 1 in November of 2010. The Wildlife Federation briefly mentioned Amendment 1, but claims the commission “took no further action on commercial fisheries”, but instead agreed to accept the measures implemented by the Sea Turtle lawsuit settlement agreement as the “commercial contribution to reducing Southern Flounder mortality.” As presented by the Wildlife Federation, this appears to be a compromise to avoid further commercial harvest reductions. The truth is the restrictions in the settlement agreement were projected to reduce the commercial harvest of Flounder by 22.2%, exceeding the required 20.5% reduction necessary to rebuild the stock. By 2010 recreational flounder harvest in NC had reached an all-time high and needed to be reduced. In February 2011, the NC Marine Fisheries Commission approved a 20.5% recreational reduction, which raised the recreational size limit to 15 inches and lowered the bag limit to 6 fish per day.
The Wildlife Federation’s explanation of Amendment 1 was certainly misleading, but they failed to even mention the 2015 Supplement A to Amendment 1, which as approved by the Commission would have severely restricted recreational harvest. Supplement A resulted in a commercial lawsuit being filed against the Commission by the North Carolina Fisheries Association and in 2016 a judge issued an injunction temporarily stopping the implementation of most of the measures in Supplement A. Eventually a settlement was reached leaving the following commercial restrictions in place, a 15-inch minimum size limit, require 5 ¾ inch escape panels in poundnets and a 6-inch minimum mesh size for gillnets targeting Flounder. At the time of the settlement Marine Fisheries Commissioner member Chuck Laughridge stated on the record that the remaining commercial reductions represented an additional 18% to 24% reduction in commercial harvest.
The Wildlife Federation would have you believe that between 2005 and 2018, the Commission approved only one 15.1% harvest reduction for the commercial flounder fishery, but in reality, they adopted three, a 15.1% reduction in 2005, a 22.2% reduction in 2010 and a 18%-24% reduction in 2015.
They would also have you believe that between 2013 and 2018, NC’s flounder stock crashed and pointed out that commercial harvest declined from 2.2 million pounds to 900,000 pounds during this time period as proof of the decline.
While the unexplained 60% harvest decline over such a short period of time is alarming, the statement itself is far more alarming than the facts! The truth is 2013’s landings were the highest commercial landings since the adoption of Amendment 1 in 2010 and you guessed it, 2018’s landings are one of the lowest ever recorded due to the impacts of Hurricane Florence. Of course, if they had told you that commercial flounder harvest had declined from 1.8 million pounds in 2005 to 1.4 million pounds in 2017, the shock factor would have been lost, especially when you consider the 3 harvest reductions implemented during this time.
My comparison like theirs is based in fact, but intended to mislead readers as 2005’s landings were the lowest recorded from 1978 to 2009 due to the impacts of Hurricane Ophelia.
The truth is many factors, other than fish abundance, have impacted commercial landings and the management measures have certainly played their part. As I mentioned earlier, recreational flounder landings in NC increased from 2005 to 2010, but have decreased since 2011, but at a slower rate than commercial landings. The Wildlife Federation noted that “the recreational fishery historically has accounted for only 12% of the total harvest” of Southern Flounder, but never mentions that since 2010 (2010-2017), the recreational sector has accounted for over 40% of the total number of flounder (Harvest & Dead Discards) removed from NC waters.
This increase could be the result of more flounder being available to anglers due to the effectiveness of commercial harvest reductions. Simply put, the flounder commercial fishermen leave in the water are now available to be harvested by recreational anglers resulting in a decrease to the total harvest reduction achieved. The most important fact not mentioned by the Wildlife Federation is that NC’s Southern Flounder stock is NOT NC’s alone. In fact, we share the stock with SC, Georgia, and Florida and this stock as a whole is overfished, meaning all states will need to reduce their harvest in order to rebuild the population.
If NC continues attempting to rebuild a multistate stock alone, as we have since 2005, it would be foolish for the Wildlife Federation or anyone else to expect a different result.
Fish given up by NC fishermen can easily be recouped in other states as they move South and the data suggest this may already be occurring. Despite these facts, the Wildlife Federation places the blame for failing to rebuild this multistate stock solely on “failed management practices adopted by the NC Marine Fisheries Commission!” Since when is it NC’s responsibility to bear the full weight of rebuilding a fish stock shared with three other states?
Thankfully, Florida and SC don’t agree with the Wildlife Federation’s logic and are currently working on measures to reduce their harvest of Southern Flounder.
Finally, the Wildlife Federation claimed that because “of what appears to be a heavy bias towards protecting the interest of the commercial fishery”, by the Commission, a 72% harvest reduction is now required to rebuild the fishery and meet statutory requirements. If you believe for a minute that the Commission has shown a heavy bias towards the commercial fishing industry, a quick read through 300 pages of MFC rules will certainly ease your concerns. Furthermore, a 72% reduction was not required to meet our statutes, which incidentally no other states have, a 52%reduction was sufficient. The 72% reduction was the direct result of political pressure applied by groups like the Wildlife Federation, who are now using the reduction to gain the support of anglers frustrated by the season closure.
That’s right, their tactics are to take fish away from the recreational anglers, blame commercial fishermen, and then encourage frustrated anglers to demand the ban of commercial fishing gears!!!!
How else can you explain their efforts to intentionally mislead the public and enrage NC anglers?
Glenn Skinner- Executive Director of the NCFA
Reprinted from NCFA Weekly Newsletter dated 9/18/2020
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