Division of Marine Fisheries Director Steve Murphey has announced that the 2020 recreational flounder season will be Aug. 16 through Sept. 30 for internal and ocean waters of the state.
The minimum size limit will remain at 15 inches total length, and the creel limit will remain at four fish per person per day during the open recreational season.
Since all species of flounder are managed under the same recreational regulations, the recreational season applies to all recreational flounder fishing.
The season will be implemented by proclamation, which will be posted on the Division of Marine Fisheries’ Proclamation webpage.
In August 2019, the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Amendment 2 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan. The plan established the framework for a 62% reduction in southern flounder harvest (compared to 2017) in North Carolina for 2019 and a 72% reduction in harvest beginning in 2020 to be achieved through various management measures, including recreational and commercial season closures.
Consequently, the commercial and recreational southern flounder seasons closed Sept. 4. Because the peak of the 2019 recreational season had already occurred, the recreational season was closed for the remainder of the year. Preliminary estimates of recreational catch indicate this closure resulted in a recreational harvest reduction of 16% in 2019.
The commercial season reopened for a short period in the fall. Preliminary landings data indicate the commercial season closure resulted in a commercial harvest reduction of 44% in 2019. The reduction was higher for the commercial sector because the peak commercial harvest had not occurred prior to the Sept. 4 closure.
The Division of Marine Fisheries analyzed a variety of scenarios for the 2020 recreational flounder season, including weekend openings with weekday closures, two-week stand-alone seasons, and holiday openings. However, the division determined these types of seasons would likely not result in the needed recreational harvest 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 and rebuild the stock to achieve sustainable harvest within 10 years of adoption of a fishery management plan.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission will open the entire Roanoke River Management Area to striped bass harvest from March 1 through April 30, unless closed or extended through proclamation. The Roanoke River Management Area includes the Roanoke River and tributaries from Roanoke Rapids Lake Dam downstream to Albemarle Sound, including the Cashie, Middle, and Eastmost rivers.
The daily creel limit within the Roanoke River Management Area is two striped bass per angler. The minimum length limit is 18 inches, and no striped bass between 22 and 27 inches can be possessed at any time. Only one striped bass larger than 27 inches can be included in the daily creel limit.
Anglers are required to use a single barbless hook or a lure with a single barbless hook when fishing in the upper Roanoke River from April 1 through June 30. The upper Roanoke River is defined as the main river channel and all tributaries, upstream from the U.S. Highway 258 Bridge near Scotland Neck to Roanoke Rapids Lake Dam.
Additionally, anglers cannot possess river herring (blueback herring and alewife) greater than six inches, regardless of origin, while fishing in or boating on the Roanoke River downstream of Roanoke Rapids Dam, its tributaries, and the Albemarle Sound.
From early March until the end of May, the Commission will post online weekly fisheries reports from the Roanoke River and also the Tar, Neuse, and Cape Fear rivers. These sampling updates will be supplemented with information on striped bass fishing and boating access areas on the Commission’s fishing page at www.ncwildlife.org/fishing.
The Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality has directed the Division of Marine Fisheries to conduct a thorough review of the regulations governing the use of small mesh gill nets in North Carolina fisheries. After decades of actions by numerous Marine Fisheries Commissions (MFC), the department, the division, and federal agencies, the regulations have become complex, difficult for stakeholders to understand, and have created an enforcement challenge.
A review to simplify the regulations with a goal to reduce bycatch and sustain our stocks is important to commercial and recreational fishermen. The Division of Marine Fisheries will:
(1) Begin a review of existing MFC small mesh (less than 4 inches) gill net rules and proclamations to identify potential amendments with respect to minimum mesh size, total yardage, and attendance requirements.
(2) Issue a proclamation this spring to limit yardage for small mesh nets with reasonable upper limits based on analysis of average, minimum, and maximum yardages currently used and address attendance requirements in certain “hot spot” areas.
(3) Present rule change options to the MFC later this year.
CCA NC reports that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) recommended, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) approved, new recreational fishing regulations for the 2020 Atlantic bluefish fishery from Florida to Maine. These measures, which include a 3-fish bag limit for private anglers and a 5-fish bag limit for for-hire fishermen, represent a substantial reduction compared to the federal 15-fish bag limit that has been in place since 2000.
Managers have stated that the data on bluefish, both scientific and anecdotal, indicates that a reduction in harvest is necessary to increase the spawning stock biomass and end the overfished state. However, the reductions recommended by the MAFMC and approved by the ASMFC, on top of other recent major changes to limits in North Carolina, such as estuarine striped bass and Southern flounder closures, pose a significant challenge for recreational anglers. Many anglers in North Carolina are rightfully frustrated with the state of our fisheries, largely the result of bias—real or perceived—by fisheries managers in favor of unsustainable commercial fisheries until drastic conservation action is necessary.
In the case of bluefish, the reduction from 15 to three is a shock to most anglers, and it is particularly frustrating given that managers for years have regularly shifted un-caught recreational bluefish quota to the commercial sector because commercial harvesters had caught all of its allocation. If those fish had been allowed to remain extant in the system rather than shifted to the commercial sector and removed, it is likely the fishery would not be in need of dire restrictions today.
Managers say that the steep reduction in the bag limit is necessary because so few anglers were actually catching 15 bluefish per trip that the limit had to be reduced all the way down to three in order to produce the necessary reductions in mortality. This is a rather damning reflection of the inadequacies of the management system that the declining state of the fishery didn’t trigger action before now. It is unfortunate that managers did not have the information necessary to correctly assess the population. A recently completed recalibration of historic recreational catch indicates that the bluefish stock may have been overfished since 1985. If that is indeed the case, then management action is certainly warranted and CCA NC was prepared to support a five-fish limit in order to recover the stock.
The three-fish limit for private recreational anglers was a surprise, especially when the for-hire industry was allowed to maintain a five-fish limit. Different limits for different portions of the recreational sector is a controversial management approach that makes a difficult situation even more contentious and divisive. However, given the nature of the bluefish fishery, it is unlikely that the different limits will have a negative resource impact. Coast-wide, the for-hire industry contributes but a small percentage to the overall bluefish harvest, but the varying limits within a sector should not become common practice.
Bluefish are a cosmopolitan species that attack a bait with gusto. While they may not be actively sought after as a primary species, they have saved many a trip for anglers. An abundant bluefish stock should be one of the primary goals of managers for this species. It is alarming that the bluefish fishery was allowed to wallow unnoticed in an overfished state for more than three decades. That negligence, and an entirely unstandardized, haphazard practice of reallocating fish from the recreational sector to the commercial sector, combine to make painful management actions necessary today.