The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission voted during its Nov. 18-20 meeting in Nags Head to protect declining southern flounder stocks by restricting commercial fishing on several fronts, but it also voted for an unexpected, 10-week fall closure for recreational fishing as part of a supplement to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ southern flounder Fishery Management Plan.
The Commission voted 6-3, with the three commissioners who hold commercial fishing seats in opposition, for measures that did not match any the complete options to lower annual harvest presented at its August meeting. They include:
Raising the commercial minimum size to 15 inches to match the recreational minimum size;
Raise the minimum mesh size for anchored, large-mesh gill nets to 6 inches;
Remove large-mesh gill nets and trammel nets from the water between Oct. 15 and Dec. 31.
Remove pound nets from the water and end commercial flounder gigging when commercial quotas based on a 38-percent reduction in harvest is met;
Require flounder pound nets to have 5 3/4-inch mesh escape panels;
Close recreational fishing for summer flounder from Oct. 16-Jan. 1.
The restrictions approved as part of the supplement take effect Jan. 1, 2016.
Joe Shute, an Atlantic Beach guide and tackle-shop owner who holds a recreational seat on the Commission, wasn’t thrilled with the final results but felt it was a reasonable compromise.
"I hate the recreational season will be closed on Oct. 16, but I understood going in there would have to be some concessions to be able to pass a supplement that restricted commercial fishing. The closure in my suggested plan would not have begun until Nov. 1 and the statistics showed nearly the same reduction. However, it didn't meet favor with the other commissioners."
What led up to the final vote was almost as important as the vote, which had been delayed from its original August time frame. First, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality informed commissioners that several options couldn’t be legally implemented through the supplement process, including a ban on anchored, large-mesh gill nets that was the choice of 99 percent of more than 5,000 people who participated in public comment in June. Also, another politician, Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Archdale), showed up to threaten legislative override of any Commission action that didn’t meet legislative expectations, the second such visit to the Commission.
The recreational closure affects fishing only from coastal inlets into sounds, bays, creeks and the Intracoastal Waterway, where southern flounder commonly reside. Dr. Louis Daniel, the executive director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, said the restrictions will not affect fishing for flounder in the ocean, where the predominant flounder species is summer flounder.
Two conservation groups were pleased with the results of the meeting, despite recreational fishermen having to shoulder restrictions that were largely unexpected since they had already seen their creel limit reduced twice and had their minimum size increased. Commercial fishermen, who take almost 80 percent of summer flounder annually, had largely avoided restrictions other than those caused by interactions with endangered sea turtles.
The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina said in a statement, "This is aplan that begins to prioritize the health of our coastal marine resources over the continued harvest of a depleted resource for the benefit of a very small group of people.”
Robert Schoonmaker of the Recreational Fishing Alliance of North Carolina said, "This is a good first step for the resource. Months of research were combined into six hours of hard work, but in the end it has paid off."