Not the prettiest nor the most elusive of fish, the flat, oval-shaped southern flounder is nonetheless a tasty staple along the North Carolina coast, whether it’s caught by fishing rod or purchased in a seafood market or restaurant.
These days the southern flounder is making waves that reach all the way to the state capital, pitting recreational anglers against commercial operators, setting a regulatory commission’s members against one another and their staff, and prompting legislators to wade into a controversy that is the territory of the executive branch. Accusations of political threats and retaliation abound.
The controversy centers on how extensively the flounder is being over-fished. Conservationists and recreational anglers say the fish is so popular that its numbers are in danger of being depleted, and point out that the catch has dropped by 60 percent in the past 20 years. But commercial fishermen say the two groups are being alarmists and are trying to take a shortcut around the process that is in place to regulate fishing.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources notes that the smaller catch could be caused in part by stricter regulations. Commercial anglers have succeeded in convincing the environmental agency to reverse its initial support for temporary limits, and have brought a halt to the proposed rewrite of the regulations.
The southern flounder catch has decreased by 60 percent in 20 years.
The stakes are large: Ninety-six percent of all the southern flounder that went into commercial markets in the United States in 2013 came from North Carolina waters. Last year, 1.7 million pounds were caught that sold to dealers for $4.8 million.
Southern flounder contributes just a sliver — about 130 jobs — to an estimated 6,745 jobs related to commercial fishing, including everyone from the fisherman to the retailer, but it is part of a significant economic benefit in coastal areas where most jobs come from tourism. The state estimates the economic impact of commercial fishing in North Carolina is $300 million each year, and recreational fishing several times that amount.
And there’s this: If the fish stock is really plunging, that means fewer fish for everyone, fewer to reel in on your trip to the coast, less fresh-catch at your favorite restaurant or market, fewer and eventually more expensive fish.
But with commercial operations taking 80 percent of the southern flounder, recreational anglers say they have another worry: A way of life is being diminished.
“You can’t teach your children to appreciate fishing if there’s not enough abundance in the water to hold their attention,” said Ray Brown, a recreational fisherman Goldsboro who has been involved in the heated politics of southern flounder population for the past 20 years. “This is where the anger comes from.”
Brent Fulcher, a fish packer who owns seafood restaurants in Beaufort and New Bern and chairs a trade association’s board of directors, disputes that with a simple argument about the motivations of the typical commercial fisherman: “If he catches all the fish, then he’s out of business.”
And so North Carolina’s southern flounder has found itself in the cross-currents of science, policy and politics.
Science and war
The state enacted a law in 1997 that called for a fishery management plan that was to be reviewed every five years to determine if overfishing was occurring or had already occurred. Data collected last year on southern flounder raised concerns.
The assessment showed the flounder harvest had a large number of immature fish that had not yet spawned, and also a decline in the number of young fish. And while one scientist said that the data was incomplete because it didn’t account for North Carolina flounder mixing with flounder from other states, the review prompted the state Marine Fisheries Commission in February to ask the state DENR for permission to explore temporary methods of reducing the harvest until a more thorough review could be done. Secretary Donald van der Vaart consented, telling the commission to pursue proposals for a reduction of up to 60 percent.
In May, the fisheries commission staff suggested lowering the limit on the number of fish that could be caught each day, increasing the limits on the the size of the fish, and seasonal closures. The commission rejected those options. Instead, the nine-member commission, all governor appointments, developed six proposals of their own. Two of those, imposed significant restrictions on large-mesh gill nets, which commissioners said was the only way to effectively reduce the harvest so the stock could replenish. The restrictions on the gill nets did not go over well with commercial fishermen who rely on the nets. Louis Daniel, Marine Fisheries Division director, said he was concerned that the net proposal fell outside the scope of the temporary process.
Public comment was solicited in June and July and about 5,000 people weighed in, about 95 percent of them in favor of a moratorium on catching the fish in nets.
And so the battle was set: The N.C. Fisheries Association, with a small budget but a record of taking disputes to court in the past, going up against the even smaller N.C. Recreational Fishing Alliance, and a pair of much larger and comparatively well-heeled conservation groups: the Coastal Conservation Association and the N.C. Wildlife Federation.
It’s a battle of the working man.
Commercial fish lobbyist Jerry Schill
In many ways it’s a familiar fight. The tensions between commercial and recreational fishing interests along the coast have been going on for decades. Jerry Schill, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association, has been a one-man lobbyist for the commercial fishing interests for 28 years. The N.C. Wildlife Federation and the Coastal Conservation Association have also employed lobbyists for decades.
The commercial camp sees the conservationists as a well-financed threat that is sophisticated in getting its message out.
“I look at it as part of the culture wars,” Schill said. “It’s a battle of the rights of the working man. I’m a blue collar guy, not union, callouses and sweat.
“Some fishermen say there’s no problem. I don’t share that belief. We don’t believe we have an emergency. There’s nothing to indicate the stock is anywhere close to collapse. But there are some questions.”
Charlie Schoonmaker, a recreational charter boat captain in Carolina Beach, complains that recreational fishermen have faced catch limits in the past decade that the commercial sector has not.
“Commercial fishermen want it all for themselves,” he said. “They don’t want us to catch what they want us to go to the fish house to buy from them.”
“They’ve done a great job of PR spinning the story about the heritage of the commercial fisherman,” said David Sneed, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association. “There’s another heritage out there: folks who grew up recreational fishing and want to be able to share it with their children.”
When some Republican members of the General Assembly got wind of the controversy, they wrote into the Senate’s proposed budget a prohibition against the Marine Fisheries Commission proceeding with new temporary restrictions until the issue could be further studied.
They argue that imposing even temporary limits is improper, because something so consequential should only be handled by amending the management plan once every five years.
The dispute was closely watched by Senate leader Phil Berger’s office, where policy analyst Jeff Warren emailed all the Republican members of the chamber to alert them of the controversy and tell them that the argument was over process, not policy.
“For now, simply sticking to the PROCESS and not the POLICY will keep you from picking sides in a very divisive battle,” Warren wrote.
Simmering tensions exploded in a Marine Fisheries Commission meeting in Raleigh in August when commissioners were expected to vote on the temporary restrictions.
Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican who represents several northeastern counties on or near the coast, showed up because the commission’s executive director wanted to introduce him as a new appointee to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Steinburg said later he made a last-minute decision to let the commissioners know that the legislature would not favor a ban on net fishing.
They have the money to make a very loud noise.
Email sent from a Steinburg opponent
“There are a significant number of legislators who are going to be watching this vote very, very carefully,” Steinburg told the commission. “So when you’re deciding which way you’re going to vote I want you to think about that. … But, having said that, if any decision that is made is not interpreted as being fair, you will likely be dealing with the legislature moving forward. So, not a threat just a fact.”
“If we’re not supposed to take this as a threat, how are we supposed to take this?” asked Commissioner Chuck Laughridge, a Harkers Island resident who is a member of the Coastal Conservation Association. He runs a fishing website, and makes a living in investments and asset management.
“I would just say it’s a reality check,” Steinburg replied. “That’s all. I’m just trying to give you an idea of what the climate is and I think you need to be aware of that. But it is not meant to influence your decision.”
Steinburg was caught on tape after the Aug. 20 meeting saying he was talking about fairness for the commercial fishing enterprises, which he didn’t think was adequately represented on the commission.
A letter signed by Steinburg and 12 other lawmakers, including Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican who represents parts of Johnston County, was hand-delivered to the DENR secretary asking him not to allow the commission to proceed with temporary limits. That letter, along with one from van der Vaart agreeing that the some of the commission’s proposals were inappropriate for the temporary process, were given to the commission at its meeting the same day.
The unexpected resistance from the DENR secretary and a handful of legislators brought the issue to a halt. The commission chairman said it would be voted on in mid-September, but he hasn’t scheduled a meeting yet. Recreational fishermen are concerned that it won’t be resolved until the harvest season ends in November.
Some commissioners were upset.
“I think the process is flawed, terribly flawed,” Commissioner Mike Wicker, a Wake County resident who holds a seat on the commission for scientists and is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, said in a meeting the next day. “Because we’re not getting information we trust. We feel we’re being gamed. There have been attempts to manipulate my vote, personally. It’s inappropriate.”
But Janet Rose of Moyock, one of two newly appointed members, said there were legitimate concerns that the commission majority favored recreational fishing interests at the expense of those who made their living at it.
Steinburg said in an interview last week that overseeing commissions is within the legislature’s purview, even those appointed by the governor, and that he didn’t mean to threaten anyone.
In his view, he is the one who has been threatened, including through insulting emails. He shared one email, with names redacted, that a fellow legislator forwarded to him late last month.
They have the money to make a very loud noise.
Email sent from a Steinburg opponent
“Please don’t let Steinburg continue this tirade and you need to move toward publicly having the legislature distancing itself from him and these 13 individuals (redacted words) are now paying attention and offering to help and they have the money to make a very loud noise.”
“That’s war,” Steinburg said. “I’m not going to be bought or sold to the highest bidder. They’re trying to knock me out of the primary or general election. … This is money, money, money. A small group of people that want – very influential, money-wise – that want to control this whole thing.”
Laughridge, the Harkers Island commissioner, said in an interview that it was a “travesty” that the legislature got involved at all. He said he doesn’t think a moratorium on net fishing ever had enough votes to pass anyway.
“In my opinion, there was not going to be anything that would have caused anywhere near the storm that has gone on,” he said. “I regret that. What happened is not only did southern flounder get shortchanged, the citizens of North Carolina got shortchanged, and our fisheries got shortchanged, because that one issue dominated until the meeting was adjourned.”
Between the pushing and shoving among commissioners, legislators and fishermen, and the arguments over process and policy this summer, sometimes it seems like it’s about the people and not the southern flounder.
“It’s no longer about fish,” said Brown, the Goldsboro fisherman.
This story was updated Sunday
Options for replenishing the southern flounder
These are the proposals the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission came up with to replenish the flounder stock. A vote was expected in mid-September, but a meeting has not been scheduled yet for this month.
Option 1: Prohibit large-mesh gill nets for commercial and recreational use. No new pound net permit applications would be processed until the fisheries plan was next amended. Active pound net permits could be renewed. Immediately reduce the total allowable catch from pound net by 25 percent of the 2013 level.
Option 2: Prohibit large-mesh gill nets north of Cape Hatteras on Sept. 16 and not reopen until Jan. 1. South of Cape Hatteras the closure would be Oct. 16-Jan. 1. Place a moratorium on pond net permits based on the previous five years of activity until the next amendment adopted.
Option 3: Retain the current 15-inch size limit and six-fish per day bag limit for recreational anglers. Increase the size for commercial to 15 inches, with specifications for gill and pound nets. Close all southern flounder fisheries, Nov. 16 to Dec. 31.
Option 4: Maintain the status quo for commercial fishing. Decrease the recreational size limit to 14 inches.
Option 5: Retain the 15-inch size limit and six-bag limit for recreational. Increase the size limit to 15 inches for commercial, with specifications for gill and pound nets. Close commercial and recreational fisheries, Dec. 1 to 31.
Option 6: Establish gill net and pound net size and design requirements.
Source: Department of Environment and Natural Resources