03 Mar MFC Winter Meeting Recap
By David Sneed
CCA NC, Executive Director
|The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission again ignored overwhelming public comment in approving a 70/30 commercial versus recreational allocation in the Southern flounder Fisheries Management Plan targeted for adoption later this year. The MFC must make significant harvest reductions required by law to halt overfishing and rebuild the overfished stock.
The winter meeting of the NCMFC wrapped up February 25th following a brief but often contentious discussion on a presentation by N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries staff on options for establishing a quota based managed stock when the new FMP is approved. The Division claimed in its presentation that it did not have a position on what that allocation should be, but most who read the staff position paper felt that the paper clearly supported using the historical landings split of 73% of harvest set aside for commercial fishermen and 27% left for recreational anglers.
Before much discussion on the options could even begin, Commissioner Doug Cross was quick to head off any debate with a motion to approve a 70/30 allocation of the fishery. In his comments, Cross stated that would be fair based on the historical landings since the commercial industry would be giving up “something”. Both at-large commissioners, Tom Hendrickson and Martin Posey, voted for the allocation with the three commercial commissioners, choosing to ignore public comments that supported an equitable 50/50 allocation.
This decision almost surely guarantees that recreational anglers will have a one-fish bag limit in a 45-day season when the new FMP is approved later this year. The vote also ignored the Division staff presentation that indicated even with a one-fish bag limit, recreational anglers would be in jeopardy of exceeding the quota if set at a 70/30 ratio. That could result in paybacks the following year including the real possibility of a total harvest closure. That’s right. The fishing public could be locked out of the Southern flounder harvest completely while the commercial harvest continues.
This rushed vote also discounted the fact that the commercial industry has dominated the harvest of Southern flounder for decades leading to the overfished status. The industry has fought any reasonable reductions in harvest proposed by previous commissions and supported by recreational anglers. The commercial industry even filed a lawsuit in 2015 to have the supplemental reductions from that year stopped, and it has exceeded the targeted reductions from Amendment 2 in both 2019 and 2020.
In addition, the commission again took no action on opening recreational angling access to the ocean flounder fishery. With passage of Amendment 2, recreational anglers were not only relegated to a short season on Southern flounder but were completely shut out of the ocean flounder fishery, which is primarily summer and Gulf flounder. To the contrary, however, the commercial fishery in our state has continued unchanged landing millions of pounds of summer flounder from ocean trawlers.
CCA NC Chairman Bert Owens reminded the commission that, “For the past two years, CCA NC has pointed out to the MFC that North Carolina’s Fisheries Reform Act gives it the duty to manage fisheries fairly between recreational and commercial groups.” CCA NC also noted that North Carolina has the largest quota of summer flounder on the East Coast yet allows its anglers no fish. Virginia has the second largest quota, and its anglers get four fish year-round. CCA NC told the commission these fish occur on near shore reefs and hard bottom, and therefore are available to the small boat fisherman many days. Owens suggested that, “With recreational bag limits at one gray trout, one redfish and now only three bluefish, access to ocean flounder is needed to give anglers and our coastal economy a boost. This decision was the same as every previous meeting-a refusal to open the ocean to anglers. This is failed and biased management.”
The State’s tolerance for overfishing of Southern flounder for decades, and the resulting impacts on the fishing public’s access to those fish, is addressed in detail in the complaint 86 citizens and CCA NC brought against the State for mismanagement of our coastal fisheries back in November.
Recreational Commissioner Tom Roller did his best to engage the commission in meaningful discussion before the vote was taken but it was clear that Commissioner Cross’ early motion to set the allocation at status quo was calculated to preempt any discussion. The MFC chose instead to ignore the public comments in support of a 50/50 allocation as well as the economic data presented by staff that show the sales impact from recreational fishing targeting Southern flounder averages $243 million per year compared to $14 million for commercial fishing. With the current 2021 allocation for gill nets reduced to 195,105 pounds each of the average 800 commercial participants can expect to make $638 for the year based on current fish prices.
The commercial commissioners did offer their condescending support for opening the ocean flounder fishing to recreational anglers after they locked up the Southern flounder allocation for commercial interests. It was extremely patronizing and disingenuous of the commissioners who voted for the 70/30 allocation to turn around and suddenly become champions of the recreational community with their support for possibly opening the ocean flounder fishery for recreational anglers at the next MFC meeting. If they cared so much about recreational anglers in the first place, they never should have allowed the access to be denied when they passed Amendment 2.
Email messages sent to the at-large commissioners Tom Hendrickson and Martin Posey asking them to explain why they voted to deny equitable access to Southern flounder despite favorable public comments were also ignored. More people should be asking them the same question, “What do you say to recreational anglers who are now facing a one-fish bag limit and potential total harvest closures when the recreational cap is exceeded?”
And please remind them not to offer the opening of ocean flounder as a justification since the commission should have never allowed this to happen in the first place. It is also time to ask, “Why are we propping up the part-time Southern flounder fishery at the expense of our resources?”
In other business, the Commission rejected a motion by Commissioner Pete Kornegay to recalculate the Total Allowable Landings quota based on the landings data that showed both commercial and recreational fishermen missed their target for ending overfishing in both 2019 and 2020. This would appear to indicate that the state is once again off of its statutory requirement to end overfishing in two years and create a sustainable fishery in ten years.
Commissioners also agreed not to pursue Rulemaking on new Hook and Line Gear Modifications intended to help reduce recreational discard mortality in more fisheries. The Commission instead agreed to make the use of circle hooks and barbless treble hooks an objective in upcoming species specific Fisheries Management Plans to look at their appropriateness on a case by case basis rather than continue to look for a universal solution to release mortality.
The Commission approved the Goals and Objectives for Amendment 2 of the Estuarine Striped Bass FMP and moved it forward for the public scoping period.