All that anyone agrees on in the politically charged controversy over southern flounder is that new regulations that go into effect Friday will reduce the number of fish that are caught.
That’s good for recreational fishing enthusiasts and conservationists, who say the flounder stock is depleted. That’s bad for commercial fishermen who have plied the flounder trade for generations and say that fear is unfounded.
A long-postponed meeting of the state Marine Fisheries Commission in late November ended with the commercial interests losing in a split vote, resulting in new restrictions but doing nothing to calm the emotional waters.
In a meeting that lasted nine hours over two days, one member of the audience was ejected and a state legislator got into a shouting match with another. A newly appointed commissioner resigned. Racist remarks were posted online. The State Bureau of Investigation launched an inquiry into a reported threat. And the commercial industry is considering filing a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, several Republican members of the General Assembly continue to monitor the controversy closely, actively interested in helping the commercial interests in their districts.
“It’s pretty serious. It has a lot of people disenchanted with the whole process,” Jerry Schill, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association, said in an interview last week. “It’s just a rough time.”
Recreational anglers and conservationists were encouraged by the November vote. They say the new restrictions were developed in an open and exhaustive process, and are urgently needed to preserve a natural resource.
While we need to continue to monitor this and probably do more, this is a good first step in the right direction.
David Knight, N.C. Wildlife Federation
“It does help protect and sustain the southern flounder,” David Knight, policy adviser for the N.C. Wildlife Federation, said in an interview. “While we need to continue to monitor this and probably do more, this is a good first step in the right direction.”
Science in dispute
Concerns have emerged in recent years about whether the southern flounder stock is depleted in North Carolina, which supplies 96 percent of the commercial markets in the United States. There has been a decline in the numbers, most of the fish caught are immature, and there is concern that an assessment of the stock should reach beyond North Carolina flounder to neighboring states.
After months of delay, the Marine Fisheries Commission, a nine-member board appointed by the governor, voted 6-3 to impose the new restrictions, which increase the limit on the size of fish that are caught, modify the gear that can be used, decrease the number of fish that can be taken to dealers, and shorten the seasons.
“It’s the hardest hit commercial fishermen will have taken in the 29 years I’ve been involved,” said Schill, a longtime lobbyist for the industry.
Schill says the commercial industry believes a thorough scientific assessment of the stock should be done. But he and those he represent complain that some of the commissioners are taking an end-run around a process that is already in place to regulate fishing – a management plan that is reviewed every five years.
The commission meets again in February, when it is expected to consider how many flounder can be caught using pound nets under the new regulations. Pound nets are large, fixed nets mostly used by commercial fishermen.
Schill says the commercial association will discuss its options at its annual meeting in late January. One option is suing to stop the regulations.
“We’ve been successful in the courts, and that’s because we’re very picky,” he said. “We don’t file frivolously. We’re looking at that issue.”
The acrimonious mood surrounding the controversy was reflected in remarks made at the November meeting by Louis Daniel, the executive director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.
“There has been an extraordinary amount of erroneous information out there about this southern flounder issue,” Daniel said at the meeting. “There’s been some hurtful and hateful things said about me, particularly, and about other folks, about staff, about Jesus himself, maybe.”
There’s been some hurtful and hateful things said about me, particularly, and about other folks, about staff, about Jesus himself, maybe.
Louis Daniel, executive director Division of Marine Fisheries
Nearly a year of bitter disagreements about the health of the flounder stock, with rumors of retaliation and violence, led up to the November meeting. After the meeting, there was reportedly an online threat and a racist message was posted on a Facebook page tied to the commercial fishing interests. The commercial association quickly denounced and apologized for the postings.
Shannon O’Toole, the SBI’s public information officer, said last week that the agency has made preliminary inquiries into the threat that was made and that the matter has not been resolved yet.
Keith Rhodes, who was a new appointee and the only African-American member of the commission, abruptly resigned after the meeting, casting one of the votes in favor of the new regulations. He told the Wilmington StarNews he resigned because he thought he would be representing the hospitality industry, but the commission was more focused on commercial and recreational fishing.
Rhodes is chef at a restaurant that he owns in Wilmington, where he grew up. He is something of a local celebrity, having appeared on the TV show “Top Chef,” and winning the city’s best chef honor for three years in a row.
He has also served on the board of N.C. Catch, an advocacy and education group that promotes local seafood. Because of that, some may have expected him to vote with the commercial interests but he didn’t.
In his letter of resignation, Rhodes said he was resigning “with deep regret” and blamed “a combination of factors” that led him to that decision. He did not respond to a request for an interview.
Lawmakers continue to watch the controversy closely.
Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican who represents eight coastal area counties, was one of two legislators who attended the November meeting and urged the commission to do more to help the state’s seafood industry. He cited a 2012 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report showing North Carolina substantially trailing Florida and Georgia in seafood sales.
“I believe we in North Carolina need to find new ways to take advantage of our God-given maritime assets and to be as judicious as possible in regulating our fisheries, making such decisions only on science and fact, not politics,” Cook said in prepared remarks.
He added that county commissioners from nine counties, one town and the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau passed resolutions opposing the process that the Marine Fisheries Commission was using to develop the new flounder regulations.
Earlier this year, Rep. Bob Steinberg, a Republican who also represents coastal counties in the northeast, warned commissioners at their August meeting that there were limits to what the General Assembly would accept. A ban on net fishing, for instance, would not be acceptable, he said.
Thirteen legislators wrote a letter to the head of the state environmental protection agency opposing new limits on southern flounder.
The governor has not announced a replacement for Rhodes.
Note: An earlier version of this story said Daniel has been under pressure from his own department. He disputes that.
New southern flounder regulations
▪ The commercial minimum size limit goes from 14 inches to 15 inches, making it the same as it is for recreational anglers.
▪ A 6-inch minimum mesh size will be required for anchored large-mesh gill nets, to minimize discards of smaller fish.
▪ A season closure of anchored, large-mesh gill nets will be in place from Oct. 16 to Dec. 31, starting in 2016.
▪ The recreational season will close Oct. 16 to Dec. 31 for hook-and-line and gig fishing.
▪ Pound nets will have to have 5 1/4-inch escape panels.
▪ Pound nets will be subject to total allowable landings that amount to a 38 percent reduction compared to 2011-15.
▪ The commercial gigging season will close when the pound net quota is met.