Donald R. van der Vaart, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, caved in to the demands of a coalition of 13 legislators and scuttled a scheduled vote on needed reform in North Carolina’s flounder fishery last week when he directed the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission to postpone the vote.

The morning of Aug. 20, van der Vaart received a letter from 13 senators and representatives asking that the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission not vote on potential changes to the southern flounder fishery that would result in restrictions largely on the commercial fishing segment of the population. Van der Vaart drafted a letter to the Commission the same day and had it delivered to the group’s Raleigh meeting that afternoon.

Van der Vaart's letter directed the Commission to postpone the vote on adopting a supplement to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Receiving the letter was the second odd occurrence of the day for the Commission members and citizens attending the meeting, coming after Rep. Bob Steinberg (R-Edenton) interrupted the meeting to request the floor. When recognized, Steinberg issued a thinly veiled threat of legislative override if the Commission voted on the flounder issue. 

Steinberg's was one of the 13 signatures on the letter to van der Vaart. He was joined by  Sen. Bill Cook, Sen. Brent Jackson, Sen. Bill Rabon, Sen. Norm Sanderson, Sen. Jerry Tillman, Rep. George Cleveland, Rep. Frank Iler, Rep. Pat McElraft, Rep. Chris Millis, Rep. Phil Shepard, Rep. Michael Speciale and Rep. Paul Tine. With the exception of Tillman, all represent coastal areas. 

Cook had previously entered a provision in the senate budget bill to prevent the Marine Patrol from entering into a Joint Enforcement Agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service that would add approximately $600,000 to its operating funds with minimal extra responsibilities. Cook had also attempted to add a second provision in the budget bill forbidding the Commission from using the supplement process before July 2016.

"Using a supplement is a quick way to enact changes in a fishery where there are known problems rather than waiting for a review of the FMP and approving an amendment," said Dr. Louis Daniel, director of NCDMF. "However, it is my understanding the intent of using a supplement was never to make wholesale changes, such as prohibiting a specific gear or season closures, but to more quickly allow changes in the existing FMP until the next review and amendment process. Changes to anything that was not brought to the table during the previous review and amendment process have to go through the amendment process, which is slower and involves much more scrutiny."

Capt. Joe Shute of Atlantic Beach, who holds a recreational seat on the Commission, agreed with Daniel, at least in part.

"I didn't think the supplement process was intended to allow several of the more significant changes included in a couple of the options offered for this supplement, but those changes were allowed to be included in the options and went through the public comment process and the public meeting with no challenges,” he said. “It was pretty obvious an overwhelming number of people supported option No. 1, and it included several things that weren't in the current FMP. I was there ready to vote, but when the letter came instructing us to postpone the vote and Sammy (Chairman Sammy Corbett) removed it from the agenda, I considered the meeting over and didn't return on Friday." 

The Commission will meet again in September – date, time and location to be announced – to take up the flounder discussion again.

Representatives of recreational fishermen roundly denounced the results of the meeting.

Robert Schoonmaker, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance of N.C. (RFA-NC) posted the following on the Alliance's message board. "The NCDMF meeting in Raleigh … was a disaster. We witnessed the NCDMF commission get derailed on making an important decision on southern flounder by Jerry Schill (of the N.C. Fisheries Association), Dr. Daniel, and the secretary of DENR. The Marine Fisheries Commission was directed to not make a decision on southern flounder, the most important agenda item of this meeting. This action is questionable, possibly illegal, and is fisheries management at its worst." 

Schoonmaker also called for the removal of Daniel as DMF’s director.

David Sneed, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association-NC said, "CCA-NC fully supports the MFC’s efforts to seek a supplement to the southern flounder FMP to finally end overfishing and allow the stock to begin to recover. In all of the years that CCA NC has been working with the MFC on fisheries management issues, no one has ever seen this type of legislative move to influence a Commission of the executive branch. There was overwhelming public support in favor of efforts to reduce commercial harvest of southern flounder by raising the minimum size limit to 15 inches, implementing a Total Allowable Catch limit for commercial harvest, the prohibition of large-mesh gill nets and no further reductions to the recreational limits. 

"The MFC was told by the secretary of DENR and 13 state legislators that it is not a matter of whether the public agrees with the need to protect a depleted fishery from continued overfishing, it is more important to continue to allow a very small sector of the commercial fishing industry to profit from a shrinking public trust resource," Sneed said. "The citizens of North Carolina that have spoken up in support of the supplement process should be very upset with their representatives, and they should let them know. The governor’s office should also be very upset with the legislators that are seeking to circumvent the executive power of the MFC commissioners that were appointed as fisheries managers by the governor."

The North Carolina Fisheries Association, a trade group that represent commercial fishing interests, was also contacted for comment but did not respond.