MFC adopts Southern flounder plan; recreational harvest ends

In its first effort to stop the imminent collapse of Southern flounder stocks, the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission at its August 23 meeting adopted the recommendations of N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries biologists that will include seasonal harvest closures for both recreational and commercial fishermen to reduce harvests by 62% this year and 72% in 2020.

After much discussion among the commission members on the merits of the DMF recommendations, Southern Flounder FMP Amendment 2 passed 6-3 after a separate motion by Commissioner Doug Cross failed. Cross’ motion would have delayed any MFC action until the November meeting and would have only provided a 52% harvest reduction. Amendment 2 will instead give DMF Director Steve Murphey some flexibility on when the seasons will close.

“The fact that we have allowed our resource to get to the point where our fisheries managers are now having to close harvest is an indictment of N.C.’s history of poor fisheries management decisions,” said David Sneed, executive director of CCA NC. Despite years of warnings of overfishing from DMF scientists, the MFC has been unable to implement any meaningful harvest reductions of Southern flounder over the last 20 years because of continued denials and the threat of lawsuits from the commercial industry – until now, he explained. DMF biologists are once again warning us that science indicates a need for immediate action, Sneed added.

The recreational flounder harvest will close on September 4thand will open again sometime during the summer of 2020. The commission encouraged Murphey to consider public comment on spreading the available harvest days for next year among weekend dates to give the working public more access. The commission also asked the director to consider the request from the for-hire industry on an exemption that would allow for-hire charter trips to keep up to four fish per vessel during the summer months when the harvest will otherwise be closed.

The commercial flounder harvest in internal coastal waters will also close for all gears on September 4thexcept for trawls in the Atlantic Ocean and will reopen by proclamation on September 15thin waters north of the Pamlico Sound followed by an October 1st opening in the Pamlico Sound and all other waters with shortened seasons.

There appears to be some confusion about Director Murphey’s original willingness to keep the ocean flounder harvest open for both recreational and commercial fishermen, David Sneed explained. Murphey’s response during the meeting indicated DMF is now considering closing it for both sectors instead, so the only harvest that would remain during the closed period would be in the shrimp trawl by-catch fishery. Many in the recreational community were hoping that keeping the ocean flounder harvest open would give some relief to the rec industry, particularly the for-hire guides and tackle shops in our beach communities, he said.

Amendment 2 will also mandate the removal of all gears, including anchored large mesh gill nets and pound nets, in areas and times outside the seasons in areas where Southern flounder discards are likely to occur.

“Once again recreational anglers have taken it on the chin in an effort to reverse the decline in our important Southern flounder stocks,” said CCA NC President Bert Owens. Anglers’ limits have been cut before on Southern flounder while no previous measures were taken on commercial gear like pound and gill nets. “We all know that’s where the fish are, yet this time DMF wants to take from anglers again in a show of ‘equity.’ Where was the equity previously,” asked Owens. “That must be corrected in the Amendment 3 FMP.”

Anglers are down to one red drum, one gray trout, no stripers and a big cut in speckled trout, Owens continued. “Legislation requires the MFC to manage our fish for recreational and commercial groups, but the only thing anglers have gotten is cuts. It’s past time for the MFC to find some more fish for anglers. A good start would be to fast-forward a spot FMP and bring back a fishery that working men and women in North Carolina used to enjoy in the fall,” he said. It was a fishery where many kids got hooked on angling, but that’s no longer possible. The MFC and DMF need to get past their fear of taking on the big trawlers inshore and bring the spot back.

Another conservation initiative didn’t fare as well. The motion to grant the N.C. Wildlife Federation’s Petition for Rulemaking on Shrimp Trawl By-catch failed in a 3-6 vote with most comments on the opposition centering on following the FMP process instead. Commissioners argued that the shrimp FMP was already in process and could be done faster, and that it contained a directive from the commission to consider the recommendations included in the last NCWF petition. Commissioners Pete Kornegay, Cameron Boltes, and Rob Bizzell voted in favor of granting the petition. Director Steve Murphey said, “We know bycatch is an issue and we know it needs to be addressed, but we have an FMP process and the process is the better place to address it. I do not disagree with a lot of what is raised in the petition.”

“It is disappointing that the commission chose once again to ignore the overwhelming decline in important finfish stocks like spot, croaker, weakfish and flounder, stocks that have all been severely impacted by shrimp trawling, particularly in light of the economic numbers attached to the declines in these fisheries,” Sneed commented.  By refusing to act on the Wildlife Federation’s Petition for Rulemaking commissioners kicked the can down the road once again.

“The division and MFC cited the petition for important conservation measures it contained, but decided to wait for the shrimp FMP process—the same process that has ignored these conservation measures over the years,” he continued. We hope they are sincere in their commitment to address the tremendous resource loss in our shrimp trawl industry in the current shrimp FMP amendment.”

CCA NC also requested some proactive measures from the commission during the meeting to protect the large numbers of speckled trout that fishermen are experiencing this year. Commissioner Boltes echoed this request in his closing comments and asked Chairman Bizzell to consider making it an agenda item for the November meeting.

CCA NC has specifically asked the commission to consider prohibitions that will protect speckled trout as they overwinter in the creeks off of coastal rivers by implementing an annual seasonal prohibition on netting in these creeks from January 1 to March 31.  The division, the MFC chairman and the DMF director have all indicated a willingness to have further discussion on proactive measures to protect these healthy stocks. “It is important that we start getting out in front on fisheries management instead of always having to be reactive when stocks are going the wrong direction,” Sneed said.

One final action of note for recreational fishermen stemmed from a motion by Rob Bizzell to begin rulemaking limiting the use of natural bait on hooks larger than 2/0 in size to de-barbed circle hooks. The proposal would also require all treble hook barbs to be bent down or removed. “While CCA NC supports efforts to reduce recreational discard mortality, such measures should not be taken without significant input from the rec industry, including tackle shops, rec guides and rec fishermen,” Sneed urged. CCA NC encourages its members and all rec fishermen to send their comments and concerns on gear modifications to help reduce discard mortality to CCA NC and MFC Chairman Rob Bizzell, he concluded.




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