The Division of Marine Fisheries has heard from many fishermen with questions about the management measures adopted in the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 2. Here are the answers to those most frequently asked.
What reductions in southern flounder harvest were approved by the Marine Fisheries Commission?
The Marine Fisheries Commission adopted the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 2, which included a southern flounder harvest reduction of 62% in 2019 and 72% beginning in 2020 for both the recreational and commercial fisheries.
Why do we need these reductions?
Reductions in harvest are required because a 2019 South Atlantic Southern Flounder Stock Assessment found that southern flounder is overfished and overfishing is occurring throughout the region (North Carolina through the eastern coast of Florida). Overfished means the population is too small. Overfishing means the removal rate is too high. North Carolina law mandates that fishery management plans include measures to end overfishing within two years of adoption and rebuild the stock to achieve sustainable harvest within 10 years of adoption of a fishery management plan. Additionally, fisheries biologists at the Division of Marine Fisheries believe the reductions are necessary to avoid further declines in stock abundance.
What are the southern flounder regulations for 2019?
The recreational and commercial southern flounder seasons closed Sept. 4. The recreational season will not reopen in 2019. Later proclamations were issued reopening the commercial season on the following schedule: Northern Area (waters north of Pamlico Sound) – Sept. 15 to Oct. 13; Central Area (Pamlico Sound and its tributaries) – Oct. 1 to Oct. 26; and Southern Area (waters from Core Sound to the South Carolina line) – Oct. 1 to Nov. 15.
Additionally, all commercial gears that target southern flounder, such as large mesh gill nets, and flounder pound nets, must be removed from the water when the season is closed (or made inoperable in the case of flounder pound nets). The catfish and shad fisheries, which use large mesh gill nets, will be allowed in areas where interactions with southern flounder are unlikely.
What will the seasons be in 2020?
The 2020 southern flounder seasons have not yet been decided. The commercial and recreational seasons will remain closed (including gear removal) until opened by proclamation.
Why is the commercial season reopening while the recreational season remains closed?
The goal of the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 2 is to achieve the necessary harvest reductions while allowing the fishery to operate during peak season. The recreational southern flounder fishery peaks in July and August, which had passed when the season closed Sept. 4. The commercial season peaks in September and October. The Division of Marine Fisheries projects that the 2019 season closures will equate to a slightly higher percent reduction for the commercial fishery.
What good does it do for North Carolina to implement restrictive management measures if the other four states included in the 2019 South Atlantic Southern Flounder Stock Assessment do nothing?
North Carolina fisheries officials have been meeting with fisheries authorities in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida regarding implementation of more restrictive management measures in these states. Regardless of what other states do, North Carolina’s combined commercial and recreational harvest of southern flounder makes up 57% of the total removals, so it is likely that any successful management strategy implemented by North Carolina will help the overall stock.
Recreational fishermen hardly catch any flounder, so they cannot be impacting the southern flounder stock to any great extent. Wouldn’t you agree?
On average in North Carolina, a recreational fisherman releases nine flounder for every flounder he keeps. An estimated 9% of those released flounder die. Multiply this discard mortality by the 2.1 million flounder fishing trips that recreational fishermen take each year, and the impact is significant.
Is the recreational season still open for other species of flounder?
No. Since all species of flounder are managed under the same recreational regulations, the recreational season closure applies to all flounder fishing in the ocean, sounds, and coastal rivers.
Are charter boats, head boats and guide boats allowed to keep four fish per vessel when the season is closed?
No. The Marine Fisheries Commission asked the director of the Division of Marine Fisheries to consider allowing the for-hire charter boats to keep four flounder per vessel per day when the recreational season is closed. After consideration, the division director decided not to grant this request. The director cited limited statistical data from the for-hire fleet and stated that the division needs more time to determine whether to separate the for-hire seasons from other recreational fishing seasons.
Can I still catch and release flounder?
Yes, but to encourage conservation, the N.C. Saltwater Fishing Tournament (Citation Program) will not issue citations for flounder during the recreational season closure. The Division of Marine Fisheries estimates a 9% discard mortality rate in the recreational southern flounder hook and line fishery, so any catch and release fishing can still have a negative impact on the stock.
How long will these regulations stay in place?
The management measures Amendment 2 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan will remain in place until adoption and implementation of Amendment 3 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan, scheduled for completion in 2021. Amendment 3 will examine more robust management strategies, such as quotas, slot limits, size limit changes, gear changes, and species-specific management.
The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) had ordered the commercial harvest of spanish mackerel closed after commercial fishermen had reached their harvest quota in the northern zone on August 24, 2019. In a move that reallocates a portion of the unused recreational harvest, Secretary of DEQ Michael Ragan ordered Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) Director Steve Murphey to reopen the commercial harvest.
Director Murphey issued a Proclamation that reopened the commercial harvest on Friday, September 27, with a 500 lb. trip limit until November 15, or when the Total Annual Catch limit (Commercial + Recreational) is reached. This appears to be a move that would put North Carolina out of compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), yet DMF managers are telling NC CCA that a provision used by Florida that allows commercial harvest to continue at lower trip limits until the Total Annual Catch limit is reached is being cited as precedent for other states to follow suit.
CCA NC feels recreational anglers are being denied their due process with what amounts to a soft allocation shift.
This seems to be out of character for a Department that has long cited following the “FMP process” when dealing with the conservation measures associated with other species like estuarine striped bass and southern flounder. The Secretary is under no obligation to “expend” the unused portion of the recreational quota and could have instead left those fish in the water to provide a conservation buffer and help insure a healthy stock. You can find the NC CCA letter to Secretary Regan sent on behalf of recreational anglers in North Carolina here: www.ccanc.org/spanishmackerelquota.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) made a landmark decision on September 25 by passing a rule requiring commercial and recreational fishermen who are fishing for snapper–grouper species to have a descending device readily available to release unwanted fish. The descending device would return the fish back to the depth from which it came, decreasing the harsh effects of barotrauma and increasing chances for survival.
The new rule, if approved by NOAA Fisheries, defines what a descending device is and provides enough flexibility to allow for homemade versions to decrease barotrauma, allowing anglers to be creative and innovative. There was universal support for the new rule with major commercial, recreational, and environmental organizations all publicly supporting the proposed requirement.
Research by NOAA Fisheries found that almost 30 percent of all red snapper caught by the recreational sector and almost 40 percent of snapper caught by the commercial sector died after release in 2017, causing a huge hidden drain on the species. The hope is that the descending device requirement will decrease the discard mortality so more fish will survive to grow and add to the spawning stock.
The SAFMC is committed to monitoring the use and efficacy of descending devices so any conservation gains would be used in future stock assessments, perhaps leading to larger populations and more robust abundance. Mortality of unwanted fish improperly released back into the ocean is one of the biggest problems facing fishermen and mangers today.
For the purposes of this requirement, the South Atlantic Council defined descending devices as “an instrument to which is attached a minimum of a 16-oz weight and a length of line that will release the fish at the depth from which the fish was caught or a minimum of 50 feet. The descending device attaches to the fish’s mouth or is a container that will hold the fish. The device must be capable of releasing the fish automatically, by the actions of the operator of the device, or by allowing the fish to escape on its own. Since minimizing surface time is critical to increasing survival, descending devices shall be readily available for use while engaged in fishing.”
The regulation must still be approved by NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Department of Commerce before going into effect.