Flounder don’t vote, but lawmakers are still supposed to represent their best interests. For in a coastal state like North Carolina, a thriving fishery resource is good for the entire state.
But that’s not what’s happening in the case of a type of flounder, the southern flounder, that is a mainstay of recreational and commercial fishing in the sounds and estuaries of North Carolina. The flat, oval-shaped fish typically range from 15 to 18 inches and are good eating and much in demand. Last year, commercial fishermen hauled in 1.7 millions pounds of southern flounder they sold to the seafood industry for $4.8 million.
That big harvest year after year is taking a toll. Some surveys indicate that the southern flounder has been heavily over-fished and that its population is nearing collapse as commercial fishing increasingly takes more fish that have not yet spawned. The situation was dire enough that the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources agreed to ask the state Marine Fisheries Commission to consider a temporary measure, known as a “supplement” to the fish management plan, that would limit the taking of southern flounder.
That was an encouraging sign of the state’s environmental regulatory system working properly to address a threat to a natural resource. The process broke down when 13 state legislators wrote to the DENR Secretary Donald van der Vaart objecting to the imposition of limits. They said that the southern flounder population has not been assessed beyond North Carolina and that limits on commercial fishing method would be premature.
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On the eve of the commission’s vote last month, Rep. Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan) went before the commission to remind the nine commissioners – all appointed by the governor – that lawmakers did not want immediate limits imposed on commercial fishing operations. When a commission member asked Steinburg whether he was making a threat, Steinburg said he simply was making sure the process would be fair.
The commission decided to postpone the vote until Sept. 16, but the issue could be moot by then. Provisions inserted into the state Senate budget would suspend the commission’s ability to issue amendments. If the provisions survive in a state budget passed before the Sept. 16 vote, the commission will be unable to do anything to halt the dangerous overfishing of southern flounder.
This is an issue that goes well beyond the fate of a certain fish. It shines a light on an attitude toward governance. Lawmakers should not be intervening in the regulatory process to protect business interests. DENR and the Marine Fisheries Commission have their roles and should be able to work without legislative intimidation. This kind of blunt intervention endangers a natural resource and raises questions about the integrity of regulation whenever it conflicts with industry profits.