North Carolina’s Saltwater Fishery Issues…Looking Back Over 2021
The 2021 fishing season for North Carolina’s anglers has just ended with little changes in the many issues that have contributed to the decline of the saltwater fishing resource. Looking back over the past year the agency responsible for the state’s resources has produced few changes in its management process. Most of North Carolina’s coastal inshore anglers agree that while recreational fishing regulations increase the fishery continues to decline. This combined with a decrease in recreation fishing licenses points to the fact that the problem does not fall on the recreational angler. The same fishery is declining for North Carolina’s commercial fisherman as well. Lower yields mean lower profits at a time when fuel prices are rising, and greater competition from commercial fishing is originating both within and outside the United States.
The issue seems to be more about the management or the lack of management of this once prosperous resource. It’s difficult to fully understand the actual level of the problems. Looking at the NCMF website for answers is both confusing and inconsistent depending on which part of the website you’re looking at and it paints a poor picture of what is actually happening. The recreational fishing statistics are made of numbers from random landings while the commercial figures are based on trip tickets or sales to commercial fish wholesale houses and restaurants. Those figures reflect that recreational licenses have seen a decline while commercial licenses have remained steady in recent years. These numbers however indicate that claims that the growing number of recreational anglers is neither valid nor the culprit for the growing saltwater fishery decline. The NCMF Commercial Statistics website shows the statistics were only updated thru June of 2020 with no annual or semi-annual stats for the remainder of 2020 or 2021. These delayed and convoluted statistics combined with the antiquated ways of monitoring the fishery’s status compound the problem.
Also, what the NCMF statistics don’t reflect is the bi-catch stats and the impact of that bi-catch, including juvenile fish that are caught and killed before spawning or maturing to the appropriate age. This is considered by many NCMF outsiders one of and possibly the top reason for the state’s fishery decline. The problem is also significant among those anglers that obtain a commercial license without the intent of selling their catch, instead, using the license as a means of using commercial gear for catching fish for personal use. This license allows the use of nets and commercial catch limits. These actions also produce high levels of by-catch and fish mortality as well as having a significant negative impact on the recreational and legitimate commercial fishing industry.
Over the past year, the NCMF has opened up many issues for public comment. These comments have been taken in the form of questionnaires which numerous respondents found the questions to be formulated in a manner that restricted the ability to address their real concerns. In some cases, the questions avoid the actual issues that anglers feel are impacting the fishery issues.
Kathy Rawls takes over as NCMF director, replacing Stephen Murphy on April 30, 2021. Rawls’s appointment marks the 4th change in the position in the past 5 years. This significant turnover has led to concerns of anglers, both commercial and recreational as to the level of management skills needed to manage and reverse the current downward path of North Carolina’s saltwater fishery.
The 2021 North Carolina flounder season was limited to only 14 days. The results of action have not yet been reported due to the slow reporting process. This limited North Carolina flounder season also proved to be problematic for surrounding states like South Carolina where flounder regulations were changed to accommodate the influx of anglers from North Carolina.
The summary of the past 12 months has proven anything but productive for the North Carolina anglers, both commercial and recreational. The North Carolina coastal fishing resource is being held hostage by a state government that turns a blind eye to the problem. It’s impacted with cronyism. It’s the victim of ineffective management that avoids the obvious and sometimes difficult changes that would begin the process to restore the ailing fishery. The resource that belongs to the citizens of North Carolina is largely being managed to accommodate a small group of businesses and persons that exploit the absence of effective management. This small group benefits by using unethical ways with no regard for the millions of people that own and enjoy the state’s fishing resource.
Multiple organizations like NC CCA as well as countless smaller groups and individuals have worked hard to push for positive changes while the decline continues. The problem will eventually be resolved, but how much damage will be done before that time comes? What level of impact will this end up having on the resource itself as well as tourism, food prices, and most of all the lives of the North Carolina fishermen both recreation and commercial that enjoy and depend on the resource? The change will come one day when a person or persons appear in the form of a White Knight riding on a horse to save the day. Most likely it will come when the people of North Carolina have had enough watching the state’s saltwater fishing resource erode. And when fishing is a frustrating day on the water due to the lack of fish, and endless regulations that restrict the thousands that love and respect the resource but continue to turn a blind eye to the small few that rape it for personal gain. North Carolina has a proud heritage of coastal fishing that’s made up of both commercial and recreational anglers. That heritage is soon to be only history.