Southern Flounder, by the numbers
The issue of Southern Flounder management, or mismanagement as some have claimed, has been a hot topic lately. Claims that commercial overharvest, imminent stock collapse, failed commercial harvest reductions, and inaction by the state are to blame for declining catches of Southern flounder are rampant.
But are they true?
If you asked the CCA or NC Wildlife Federation the answer would be yes but if you asked me, I’d say their claims are absurd and not supported, by the numbers. You’re probably wondering, if they are wrong, then why are we catching less flounder than we were 30 years ago?
My answer is, we are not catching less flounder than we were 30 years ago!
The truth is, NC fishermen and anglers are catching the same number of Southern flounder as we were in the 90’s, we’re just harvesting less. Before I go any further, let me explain that I’m looking at the data in numbers of fish, not in pounds as it’s usually presented, and here’s why.
First, years of management measures have increased the average weight of commercial removals, making it inappropriate to look solely at pounds of fish removed when attempting to gauge success. In an attempt to reduce the harvest of southern flounder, managers have increased the minimum size limit and minimum mesh size allowed when targeting flounder, several times, forcing fishermen to harvest larger flounder.
In addition, there have been multiple gill net closures to reduce sea turtle interactions, usually in the summer months, with the gill net fishery being reopened in the fall when turtle interactions are less likely to occur. Southern flounder are a fast-growing fish, meaning the fish not harvested by gill nets, in the summer are much larger when encountered in the fall, further increasing the average weight of commercial removals. These types of management measures can be very effective at reducing the numbers of fish removed from the stock while showing little or no reduction in the pounds of fish removed.
For example, if the commercial sector removed 100,000 flounder with an average weight of 1.4 pounds their removals would be 100,000 fish or 140,000 pounds. In comparison, if we decreased the number of flounder removed to 66,667 fish and increased the average weight of removals to 2.1 pounds, the total removals would be 66,667 fish or 140,000 pounds. A 33% reduction in the number of fish but absolutely no reduction in pounds. Simply put, more fish were left in the water but, by choosing to use pounds of fish, to gauge success, we would show no reduction in harvest. That’s not to say that the pounds of commercial southern flounder removals have not been reduced, they have, but the increase in average weight makes the reductions appear less significant than they actually are.
Second, the total weight of recreational removals could be significantly higher than the numbers used to assess the stock.
Prior to the implementation of management measures the commercial sector accounted for approximately 80% of the total number of flounder caught in NC, with the recreational fisheries catching the other 20%.
As restrictions were implemented commercial removals and live discards decreased and recreational removals and live discards increased, especially live discards. Recreational anglers now account for about 75% of the total number of flounder caught in the state with the vast majority of these fish being released. On average, NC anglers release just over 2 million southern flounder annually, with a post-release mortality rate of 9%, meaning around 200,000 fish are removed each year, as dead discards in the hook and line fishery. These dead discards make up about 30% to 40% of the annual number of recreational removals but only account for approximately 5% of the total removals in pounds.
Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense that the fish being released weigh less than those being harvested, but when you consider the average weight of a keeper and the current size limit it makes no sense that these percentages would be so far apart.
The average fish being harvested in the hook and line fishery is about 1.5 pounds, just over the 15-inch size limit. This said, it would be safe to assume that a significant number of fish just below the 15-inch minimum size are being released, but the average weight assigned to hook and line releases was just 0.21 pounds.
Less than a quarter of a pound?
That’s right, DMF assumed an average weight of just 0.21 pounds, approximately an 8.5-inch flounder, for all Southern flounder released by NC anglers. For the average flounder to be this small the vast majority of fish released would have to be well below the 8.5-inch average, as small as 4 inches.
That’s the length of 1 square of toilet paper!
With a 15-inch size limit (1.428904 pounds on average) it makes no sense that the average size/weight could be this low. It also makes no sense that, despite multiple size limit changes, the average weight of hook and line discards has remained, a constant, 0.21 pounds. That said, it’s likely that in recent years 30% to 40% of the total recreational removals, in pounds, have been underestimated.
For these reasons I believe numbers of fish paints a more accurate picture of what is actually occurring in the Southern flounder fishery.
Here’s what the picture looks like, by the numbers. The number of Southern flounder being caught in NC has remained constant averaging around 3.3 million fish annually. In the 13 years (92-04) prior to the adoption of the Southern flounder FMP, NC anglers and fishermen caught a combined total of 42,870,643 flounder averaging 3,297,741 fish annually. In the 13 years (05-17), after the implementation of the FMP, the combined total catch was 43,426,239 flounder, averaging 3,340,479 fish annually.
How could the number of fish caught remain constant for nearly 3 decades if the stock is on the verge of collapsing?
As I mentioned earlier, the number of fish being caught has remained constant but the number being removed from the stock has been reduced significantly. In the 13 years prior to the FMP, 31,232,814 flounder, (73% of the catch) were removed by both sectors combined. In the same length of time , post FMP, 19,342,282 flounder, (44.5% of the catch) were removed. This represents approximately a 30% reduction in the total number of flounder being removed from the stock, since the adoption of the FMP.
Failed management? Inaction by the state?
Again, catch has remained constant, so this reduction is not the result of, a lack of available fish, it must be the result of management measures effectively reducing removals, as intended.
The numbers, presented above, are the removals/reductions for both sectors combined, unfortunately both sectors have not seen a reduction in the numbers of flounder removed from the stock. Pre-FMP (92-04) commercial fishermen removed a total of 26, 316,300 flounder, or 2,024,330 fish annually. Post FMP (05-17) the commercial removals dropped to 12,295,714 flounder or 1,078,506 fish annually. This represents a 53% reduction in the number of commercial removals or 14,020,586 less fish removed, by commercial fishermen, since the adoption of the FMP.
Of those 14,020,586 fish, left in the water by commercial fishermen, 3,228,020 were recouped by recreational anglers increasing their annual removals by 45%. This means, that since the adoption of the FMP, 10,792,566 more flounder have been left in the water alive and every one of those fish were given up by commercial fishermen.
Failed commercial harvest reductions? I think not!
Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m in no way implying that the southern flounder stock isn’t in trouble or that our failure to reduce recreational removals is the problem. The truth is I don’t know if the stock is overfished or not or if we had reduced recreational removals further management would not be necessary. What I do know is, the claims of failed commercial reductions and inaction by the state are false. Unlike the CCA and NCWF, the numbers don’t lie!
Attached below is a story, about southern flounder, written by NCWF. I encourage everyone to read it and stay tuned, next week, for the rest of the story. As always, please spread the message far and wide. The NCFA does not have the reach these other groups have so we are counting on you to spread the truth for us.
Executive Director- North Carolina Fisheries Association, Inc.
UPDATE for 1.17.2022
A three panel Superior Court ruled unanimously by a vote of 3-0 last week to uphold the new Congressional, state Senate and state House districts. However, it was appealed to the state Supreme Court so nothing has been settled yet. The Supreme Court should announce this week whether it will take up the case, but it is expected they will so maybe by next week’s update we’ll have a timeline.
Until this issue is settled it puts the campaigns for those offices up in the air except for the fund raising which continues. Nothing much going on in the General Assembly either.
God bless, Jerry