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MFC stalls-again-on nets, Southern flounder and striped bass

By David Sneed

CCA NC Executive Director

The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission met in November by webinar to cover a wide variety of coastal marine resource issues. The agenda included further discussion on a variety of options for the Division of Marine Fisheries to explore as a first step toward amending small mesh gill net rules pertaining to yardage limits, attendance requirements, when and where nets may be set, and allowable mesh sizes.

Commissioner Sam Romano, with a second from Commissioner Mike Blanton, opened the meeting with a motion to have the item removed from the agenda. This motion failed but Romano was back at the the end of the lengthy discussion with a motion to send all options out to the Finfish, Northern, and Southern Advisory Committees before they are brought back to the commission for additional consideration. More study and delay.

Several commissioners, including Pete Kornegay, Tom Roller and Robert McNeill, all asked at the beginning of the discussion why the options presented by the Division did not at least include an option looking at the total removal of gill nets from our inshore waters? CCA NC, represented by Executive Director David Sneed and Fisheries Committee Chairman Chris Elkins were the only two members of the public to speak during the Public Comment period Thursday morning and included this in their comments:

“CCA NC was disappointed that there was no option from the Small Mesh Gill Net Workgroup to remove small mesh gill nets completely from our inshore waters.  The commission should have been presented with the data on what removal of nets completely from our estuarine waters would mean to the recovery of troubled fish stocks that continue to be overfished and their recovery handicapped by the continued cryptic mortality from our gill net fisheries.  

The commission should use this opportunity to consider the removal of all nets from our inshore waters to aid in the recovery of our troubled fish stocks. Of the stated goals of this exercise, it would be the most efficient and direct way to address the streamlining and simplification of the rules, the reduction of bycatch, greater flexibility with managing harvest of quota managed fisheries, and eliminating user conflicts.”

The division, at the direction of the commission and the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, is reviewing North Carolina’s small mesh gill net rules with a focus on reducing regulatory complexity, bycatch concerns, and user conflicts, and asked for the commission’s feedback. Even as we are preparing this update we are receiving messages about the tremendous effort by gill net boats in our coastal creeks and rivers. Nighttime netting operations, out of view of any law enforcement, are resulting in the localized depletion of speckled trout and red drum in many coastal areas popular this time of year with recreational anglers.

In addition, the commission also asked the division to consider several different options for sector harvest allocations in the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 3.

Until now, the allocation between the commercial and recreational sectors in fishery management plans has been based on historical harvest. In Amendment 3, that would equate to about 73% commercial and 27% recreational but advocates of the recreational fishery have asked for an increased recreational allocation.

CCA NC also included comments on the Southern Flounder FMP in its Public Comments on Thursday:

“Reducing recreational harvest to one fish, continuing to deny recreational fishermen access to the ocean flounder, and giving the commercial industry over 70% of the total allowable harvest is absurd when the commercial industry has fought every Southern flounder plan since the inception of the Fisheries Reform Act in 1997.
“The NC Fisheries Association even went so far as to file a lawsuit in 2015 to reverse the only meaningful management measures designed to end overfishing ever implemented by the MFC and which were supported overwhelmingly by the fishing public. The public deserves access to ocean flounder species same as the commercial industry and 50% of the total allowable harvest if this has now become a quota managed fishery.
“What is the scientific basis for allocating 70% of Southern flounder to commercial harvest? You want the fishing public to take less than 50% of the allowable harvest then take the gill nets out of our inshore waters and give the stock a fighting chance at recovery.”
Commissioners McNeill, Roller and Kornegay supported a motion to look at a 50/50 harvest allocation since the Southern flounder stock has become a quota-managed fishery. Commissioner Doug Cross warned that the commercial commissioners would look at taking more allocation from recreational anglers in future plans on species where recreational harvest dominated if the commission took this approach on Southern flounder.
Commissioner Cross did not include any discussion about the impact of decades of overfishing on Southern flounder that has seen commercial harvest dominate the catch and recreational anglers take the brunt of the limited attempts to end overfishing. The Commission ultimately voted to ask the division to include several options in the amendment for commercial/recreational allocations at 70/30, 65/35, 60/30 with a 10% allotment for gigging, 60/40, and 50/50.

The commission also heard presentations from division staff on recently completed striped bass assessment reports and a resulting revision to Amendment 1 to the N.C. Estuarine Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan. The revision will implement adaptive management contained in the current management plan that will reduce fishing mortality in the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River Management Area by 57% effective Jan. 1, 2021.
Following staff presentations, Commissioner Pete Kornegay offered a Ten-Year Prescription for the Recovery of the Albemarle Sound/ Roanoke River Striped Bass Stock, which included at least a five-year moratorium on all striped bass harvest in these waters and a two-year phase out of gill nets, except large mesh gill nets in the Chowan River for blue catfish.
Division staff did an excellent job of explaining how poor water flow years result in poor stock recruitment years. The report indicates that we have seen poor stock recruitment each of the last four years, 2017-2020, yet the Commission took no action in requesting supplemental measures.
Commissioner Kornegay, who has spent over 30 years studying striped bass as a scientist, was trying to express to the Commission the dire state of our estuarine striped bass and that drastic harvest reductions are needed now to save yet another declining stock. Instead, the Commission once again deferred action on a troubled stock in favor of letting the FMP process run its course.
Watching this drama play out on the MFC webinar last week reminded me of the Yogi Berra comment, “It was like deja vu all over again.” Are our estuarine striped bass doomed to the same fisheries management history as River Herring and Southern flounder? It sure looks that way.
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