NC Fishing Decline…..Flounder Moratorium Discussed As Past Regulations Continue To Fail
Mounting pressure surrounding North Carolina’s saltwater fishing resource seems to have seen a substantial increase in recent weeks. With just weeks before the 2022 fishing season, recreational anglers are again finding they will face significant restrictions in Flounder regulations and possibly worse. The 2021 stock reports reflect a substantial shortfall in the Flounder fishing harvest goals. As a result, the NC Division of Marine Fishery Commissioners is considering a moratorium for Southern Flounder in the state. NC recreational fishermen were already restricted to only two weeks of Flounder fishing for the past year as well as 2022.
Recreational fishing is facing yet a greater restriction. While the state’s saltwater fishing resource caretaker of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries continues to “flounder” around for solutions that are limited to restricting the access that recreational anglers and valid commercial fishermen have to the fishing resource. Since their inception in 1997, the NCDMF officials and the state’s saltwater fishing community have watched Flounder stocks decrease an estimated 87%. Also, they have seen a long line of agency directors come and go. Some left due to having their hands tied while presenting a solution to the mounting fishery issues. Over the same 20-year period, the agency has had countless “public comment” meetings which have resulted in being a pressure relief valve for the recreational and commercial fishing community, resulting in creating a greater division between them both. A division that has served only to destroy any cooperation between the two groups that works toward a compromise and ultimately a solution.
Instead, the NCDMF operates within an environment of outdated and non-effective management. They remain in a vacuum due to political pressure driven by special interest groups that stand to benefit. Today, surrounding states have regulations prohibiting gill nets that increase the landing of immature fish of multiple species, including Flounder and Stripers. However, NCDMF continues to allow gill fishing. The same is true for trawling in North Carolina estuaries, this being one of the largest fish breeding grounds in America. These damaging actions destroy the delicate bottom and create a massive by-catch impact. Neighboring South Carolina is a prime example of restricting gillnets and forbidding inshore trawling. The state maintains a healthy fishery and still has a strong commercial fishing industry. At the recent NCDMF in February, one commissioner publicly commented, “I don’t care what South Carolina does.” This was a response to questions about considering some of the strategies of South Carolina’s fishery management. This comment and others reflect the absence of willingness to seek and utilize proven solutions, which is hard-headedness. The success of other states could be a means of avoiding solutions that serve as a negative impact on those special interests. It was a statement that proves to have a potentially harmful impact on North Carolina’s fishing resources. Why are the caretakers of North Carolina’s fishery refusing to consider the successful tactics of other states?
The issue of the use of commercial licenses for fishermen that are not actively fishing for a living continues to have a massive impact. This act allows individuals to use a commercial license to fish with commercial gear such as nets, fish at times forbidden for the recreational fisherman, and increased take limits. It enables the individual to use the commercial license to escape sales taxes on items such as boat motors, boats, and other purchases. A report submitted to the NCDMF 9 years ago reflected that 45% to 50% of commercial license holders used the license for personal use. This act alone is having a massive impact on the state’s fish stocks as well as the reproduction of those stocks and damage done by their by-catch. In the February NCDMF meeting, the commissioners discussed how to address this issue. Several complicated solutions were brought up. However, you can simply check the records for the number of “trip tickets” the license holder has submitted over the past year to verify they are valid commercial fishermen before issuing a renewed license. The commercial trip ticket is a requirement for reflecting the catch and where it was sold. A simple solution to a complicated problem.
One of the largest issues has to be the lack of enforcement that the NCDMF provides. Today the agency has only 55 enforcement officers, including the administrative staff. While these officers are true professionals, they are spread far too thin. There are thousands of miles of enforcement areas to cover, including their “off the water” duties to be considered. With the growing fishing population, they are fighting a losing battle. It’s a fool’s dream to think that this amount of enforcement personnel can effectively meet this 24/7/365 demand.
The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries was created to protect the state’s coastal fishing resource. It has done anything, but that. Many of the comments at the February NCDMF was an indication that it will only continue. It’s a bloated government entity with an over-complicated framework and processes that are nearly impossible to navigate. It’s an organization staffed by talented and dedicated, hardworking people who themselves love the North Carolina fishery more than we will ever know. It’s had many commissioners and other top-level people that had the best interest of the North Carolina people and their fishery resource in mind and fought hard for them. Many times they were outvoted on key issues that would have a positive impact on the future of the state’s coastal fishery and associated industries. Then we have those that were driven by political influence and the cronyism that comes with special interest groups.
The North Carolina marine fishery resource belongs to all of us, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, and all the people of North Carolina. No one person or group has the right to exploit it, abuse it, or neglect it. The current system is broken and needs to be fixed immediately before it’s too late. We need to take a different approach to the problem with a less complicated framework and rid those in the management roles that have continued to face the real issues in fear of stepping on the toes of those entities that reap the benefits of this fishery no matter what damage it creates.