16 Aug Major Policy Issues Ahead of August 2019 Meeting of the NC Marine Fisheries Commission
The NC Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) will consider an amendment to the Southern flounder Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) during their August meeting that includes severe cuts to both commercial and recreational harvest through seasonal closures. These management changes have been developed and proposed by the NC Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) scientists in response to the 2018 stock assessment for Southern flounder that indicates the fishery is overfished and is continuing to experience overfishing. It is expected that the recreational harvest of flounder will be closed after the August MFC meeting and will not reopen until the summer of 2020. The commercial harvest will be closed at varying times this fall based on gear and geographic location. The back story behind this seemingly disparate closure is that recreational fishermen have been fishing all year with harvest historically peaking in late summer, while much of the commercial harvest occurs in the fall. The scheduled closures for the different sectors will then result in approximately equal percentage reductions.
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. We have reached the point where DMF scientists are now advising that the harvest of Southern flounder must be reduced by 72% to save the stock and begin rebuilding. 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 NC’s history of poor fisheries management decisions. While many in the recreational community are just now realizing the magnitude of these pending closures, CCA NC has never wavered from our support of conservation measures needed to stop the decline of Southern flounder in North Carolina. Active support from the recreational community led to the 2015 Southern flounder supplement only to have it thrown out by a judge in 2017 as a result of a lawsuit filed by the NC Fisheries Association (NCFA) to block the needed harvest reductions. The 32% harvest reductions recommended in the 2015 supplement, denied and fought by the NCFA, do not look so bad now, do they? And in 2018 as DMF scientists began to express their concerns that Southern flounder stocks were now on the verge of collapse, recreational anglers were the first to call for immediate action to save the fishery, including a moratorium, if necessary. Any angst being expressed now by fishermen is simply an indictment of the apathy that has allowed them to ignore this coming storm.
The DMF insisted from the beginning of Amendment 2 that any harvest reductions had to be “equitable” across all sectors, commercial and recreational, despite the fact that Southern flounder harvest is not, nor has it ever been, equitable. Many recreational anglers joined with CCA NC to object to this distribution of the harvest reductions, supporting instead the premise that the commercial sector that took the most harvest, and contributed the most bycatch waste, should bear the heaviest cuts. In fact, the Southern Flounder Advisory Committee put forth a proposal, supported by CCA NC, that would have seen the commercial gill net fishery take the majority of the harvest reductions and the remaining reductions distributed between the cleaner commercial fisheries – pound nets and giggers.
From the DMF Commercial and Recreational Fishery Section presentation to the Southern Flounder Advisory Committee on January 9, 2019, the commercial fishing ex-vessel value landings of Southern flounder have averaged $4.5 million annually between 2008-2017. During that same time period, commercial trips have averaged 84 pounds per trip at an average price paid to the fisherman of $2.64 per pound. This amounts to an average of $222 per trip. 76% of vessels land less than 1,000 pounds of Southern flounder per year. Recreational anglers averaged 2.5 million trips per year targeting Southern flounder during the same time period with an average annual expenditure of $438 million.
On May 6, 2019, the DMF Southern Flounder FMP Plan Development Team presented their management options to the MFC based on their findings that, the most recent coast-wide stock assessment determined the stock is overfished and overfishing is occurring, and that reductions in total coast-wide removals are necessary to end overfishing within two years and recover the stock from an overfished state within a 10-year period. We have attended all of the Southern flounder Advisory Committee meetings and wish everyone could have attended any of the Southern Flounder meetings to hear the presentations by the DMF scientists on the status of the stock firsthand. We wish more people could have been at the MFC meeting when DMF Director Steve Murphey stated that he fears the stock is on the verge of collapse. Has any collapsed fishery ever been returned to commercial viability?
CCA NC supports the scientific findings of the DMF Plan Development Team and their efforts to end overfishing in two years and recover the stock from an overfished state within a 10-year period. This is a recognition that those of us who fish for sport can no longer simply be focused on our daily bag limit.
The NCFA, in its capacity of “Serving Commercial Fishing Families of North Carolina since 1952”, has maintained their opposition to the Southern Flounder FMP Amendment stating in part that “the North Carolina Fisheries Association is opposed to any further action being taken by the Commission on ‘Amendment 2’ to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan.” These proposed harvest reductions will be hard on both the commercial and recreational industries, but we will never have sustainable fisheries until we are willing to move our thinking beyond economic agendas. We need to fix this before it is too late.
Conservation of fish and wildlife in North Carolina and across the country has always been led by the sportsmen and sportswomen of North Carolina. This begins with our purchase of licenses and continues with the payment of excise taxes dedicated to wildlife conservation and is affirmed in our commitment to conservation through ethical angling and best harvest and release practices. Recreational anglers were the first to support harvest closures on Estuarine striped bass and Southern flounder if it was what was needed to save the fisheries from total collapse and begin to rebuild. We do not have a stock assessment on striped bass, but the best available science indicates nearly extirpated native fish, thus we were overfishing, and the fish are obviously overfished. CCA NC has called for an end to the commercial harvest of this put and take fishery for years to try to save what native Estuarine striped bass remained but the DMF would only support a complete moratorium. CCA NC continued to advocate for the removal of gill nets in the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse rivers as a condition of the moratorium and the ultimate action by the MFC to remove these nets was justified. The current stock assessment science for Southern flounder indicated that past management measures to reverse declining stocks were insufficient and guess what, the fish did not recover. If the science is not followed presently, it is likely Southern flounder will be in the same or worse position in 5 years at the next FMP.
Currently, we have been experiencing some good fishing in many parts of the state. The Southern flounder recreational catch has been good this season in many areas and if flounder stocks had a decent age structure these catches would be commonplace. The pictures showing up on social media have led many in the recreational community to question the need for the more conservative management measures implemented for striped bass and under consideration for Southern flounder. But let’s consider what has happened to bring about this positive change. A combination of a little management and a lot of two natural disasters – Matthew and Florence – took pressure off of these fish allowing them to escape harvest, grow and spawn another season.
In 2016 we saw the MFC vote for a universal 15″ size limit for Southern flounder increasing the commercial size limit from 14″ to 15″. Due to a truncated age structure of small fish that did not meet the 15″ size limit, more fish escaped harvest. We also had Hurricane Matthew in 2016, so effort was down again, and more fish escaped harvest. In 2018, we had Hurricane Florence, effort was down again, and fish escaped.
The Division is on the right track with Amendment 2 if you stop to consider how the “seasonal closure” due to Hurricanes Matthew and Florence took the pressure off of these fish and led to the outstanding fishing season for flounder we have experienced this year. The escapement from the 2016 and 2018 “closures” will help jump start the recovery that Amendment 2 will bring. We can then get Amendment 3 right.
It was also CCA NC that highlighted the disparity on harvest of ocean-caught flounder by commercial fishermen with a closure for recreational fishermen and must now insist that this disparity be addressed and corrected in Amendment 2 without delay. According to DMF biologists, only 3% of ocean-caught flounder are Southern flounder, the remaining 97% being Summer and Gulf flounder. We feel that access to the ocean flounder fishery should remain independent from inside Southern flounder management. Thus, both the non-Federally permitted SCFL holders and recreational fishermen should have access to these fish. Regulations for both sectors should remain in compliance with current and future ASMFC/MAFMC Summer flounder fisheries plans. It would be unfair to allow commercial flounder fishing and not allow recreational fishing or vice versa.
Nature has also played a role in helping us get the management of speckled trout back on track. We had Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Effort was down and fish escaped to grow and spawn. We had a cold-stun event in late December 2017. Director Murphey followed FMP protocol taking appropriate management measures to close the fishery until June 15, 2018. Effort was down and fish escaped to grow and spawn. Then Hurricane Florence hit in September 2018 causing widespread devastation to coastal areas due to wind and historical flooding. Effort was down and fish escaped to grow and spawn.
We need to get the next Speckled Trout FMP right. We cannot expect to manage by natural disasters. We need to continue to take the pressure off of speckled trout to allow them the chance to grow and spawn. One way to assure strong annual year classes would be to ban all netting of speckled trout in the creeks where they go during the winter. The MFC should implement an annual seasonal prohibition on netting in the creeks and tributaries of all coastal rivers from January 1 to March 31 to protect the large, highly fecund female trout that overwinter in these creeks and canals.
The fact that the DMF scientists are now recommending the closure of important recreational fisheries, including estuarine striped bass and flounder, highlights the historical failure of past Marine Fisheries Commissions to protect the public’s interest in our public trust resources. Past MFC’s have deferred to the mandate from the commercial industry for “maximum sustainable harvest” and ignored the best available science in favor of denials and anecdotal evidence of stock status by the commercial industry. The NC General Assembly (NCGA) has also ignored the overwhelming evidence of declining fish stocks since the passage of the 1997 Fisheries Reform Act in deference to maximum harvest by the commercial net industries. Commercial harvest of Atlantic Croaker has declined 91% since 1997. Spot has declined 84%. Weakfish has declined 98%! CCA NC led the effort to introduce meaningful reform of the 1997 Fisheries Reform Act in 2017 with House Bill 867 in 2017, but it was defeated in large part because legislators felt it was “too big” to take on all at one time. This year, CCA NC helped push for passage of House Bill 483, a bill that would set minimum size limits for fish based on at least 75% of the stock reaching spawning size before they would be harvested. The concept behind H483 was from one minor section of HB 867, yet it has been criticized by some legislators because it “did not do enough” to address the real problems leading to our declining fish stocks. Bills like H483 are attempts to fix the failed FMP process. Unfortunately, they are last attempts. This bill, like all bills, is not perfect, but continuing on the current path is unacceptable.
The Commission is also scheduled to hear a Petition for Rulemaking from the NC Wildlife Federation on shrimp trawl bycatch reduction. Sport Fishing Magazine recently wrote about the effects of shrimp trawling on fish stocks stating, “The toll of this bycatch from tens of thousands of shrimp tows every year is a devastating, hidden impact on our ocean ecosystem.” We urge the Commission to continue to look at how we can reduce the impact of shrimp trawling on our finfish populations, including Southern flounder, croaker and spot. And we continue to encourage the Commission to implement a Fisheries Management Plan for Spot. As was mentioned earlier, this once popular recreational fishery has been reduced by over 80% since 1997 and Atlantic Croaker and Spot continue to be the top two species impacted in shrimp trawl bycatch studies. Spot used to draw thousands of visitors to our coast every year with families that planned their vacations around our famous Spot runs. Those days are gone.
In his new book, “Fishing, Gone?” by Sid Dobrin, the author writes about what it really means to be a recreational angler, acknowledging from the start that recreational saltwater fishing is big business and big culture. But the challenge is that if we are to move toward sustainable practices, we must first move toward ways of thinking about fish and fisheries beyond mere economic agendas.
The speckled trout and flounder fisheries we are seeing today indicate we have a good start on recovery. Now is not the time to question the science and allow our MFC to repeat the sins of the past commissions. We encourage the Commission to continue to manage by putting the health of the resource first.
David Sneed, Executive Director
Coastal Conservation Association North Carolina