Sunday, August 11, 2019

Southern Flounder North Carolina's Epic Fail.

Southern Flounder North Carolina's Epic Fail.
by Anna Beckwith

In 2016 a lawsuit was filed by the North Carolina Fisheries Association, the Carteret County Fisheries Association and the Counties of Carteret, Dare and Hyde suing the NC Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) and the NC Division of Fisheries Management (DMF), preventing them from taking management actions that would have prevented the flounder debacle we are now currently experiencing.  

It is important to understand the relationship between the MFC and DMF. The MFC is a nine-member board appointed by the Governor to manage, restore, develop, cultivate, protect and regulate the State's marine and estuary resources. It does this by adopting rules and policies and implementing management measures for state fisheries. DMF is the management, science and enforcement branch of the State's government for marine and estuary resources. They provide the science used by the MFC and implement and enforce management strategies approved via the MFC process.

Although it was clear that Southern Flounder were in trouble, this lawsuit claimed that the new management measures proposed by the 2015 MFC to reduce flounder catches were unnecessary and that data was insufficient. At the time, the MFC felt that 10 years of data and two previous approved stock assessments provided ample basis for taking action to protect southern flounder. In hind sight, it is clear that additional management measures were indeed needed and if they had been fully implemented, would have given southern flounder stocks a real chance at rebuilding.

The range of management measures offered in 2015 by the MFC concentrated on the problems facing southern flounder rather than in spreading the pain among all user groups (Recreation vs. Commercial) and gear types (pound nets, gigging, large mesh nets). While recreational users had achieved some reductions, in multiple instances other commercial gears had increased their catches. This strategy of directing regulations on those who were not meeting the needed reductions was treated as radical and was unpopular among many members of the NC Legislature.

The problem with flounder is simple. Not enough fish are growing up and getting out of the nursery areas and into the ocean where they spawn. They are caught in internal waters by hook and line, gigs and gill nets and as they migrate offshore in the fall they run into a wall of pound nets.

I occasionally hear that I "should have done more" to help Southern Flounder during my time on the NC MFC.  Unfortunately, my "resource first" position and aggressive, vocal support for real action made me an unpopular choice when my term was up for reappointment in 2015. My replacement resigned after two meeting and the seat I had occupied was left without a voice for some time.

In 2005, in order to achieve a sustainable harvest of the southern flounder stock, the required harvest reduction was estimated at 38%. In the absence of real action over the past 15 years we are now faced with a needed reduction of 72% in 2020 to achieve a sustainable harvest.

Despite the 2015 MFC's valiant effort to move forward with real change, we are now facing a near moratorium on harvest with devastating socio economic impacts on all user groups. I wonder if those measures put forth by the 2015 MFC now seem less offensive to those who sued to stop them?

There is a need to restructure the southern flounder fishery in order to achieve a measurable harvest while still providing access to the resource, considering discards, bycatch and protected species interactions.

I am surprised that the current MFC accepted, at the advice of their lawyer, DMF's proposed recommendations in Amendment 2 without any alterations. This current MFC relinquished their opportunity to restructure the fishery by bringing some of the 2015 proposals or developing new ones of their own.

DMF provided management recommendations for the legally required reductions that spread the pain equally across all sectors and gear types.  However, in my opinion, the southern flounder fishery must be restructured, so that  the greatest overall benefit to the state and the highest and best use of this resource is achieved. While the MFC must be fair, they are not required to be equitable and they can treat fishing sectors and gear types differently if they chose.

As a fisheries manager, Southern Flounder has haunted me. I consider the management of this fishery an epic fail and hope that someday there is light at the end of the tunnel.

At my last meeting on the NC MFC I read onto the record the following statement which may be entertaining for those who would like to read a little history.