Plenty of colorful stories about our state’s heritage of commercial fishing are published on a regular basis across North Carolina throughout the year. Who does not enjoy reading about a coastal visit to feast on a Calabash-style seafood dinner? But there is another side to the story about fresh, local seafood that no one wants to tell. It’s a story that includes references to overfishing and depleted stocks endangering fishery resources for future generations.
The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries 2014 Stock Assessment Report classified 15 of the 29 species of finfish managed by the state as either “of concern” or “depleted.” Included in this story of depleted fish is the once-popular commercial and recreational species of river herring. After years of dire warnings from fisheries biologists that went unheeded, the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission implemented a no-harvest plan for river herring fishermen beginning in 2007. Eight years later we are still waiting for this once-popular fishery to recover.
Southern flounder is the latest example of a once-robust fishery that has been in decline for over two decades. Various DMF staff reports labeled Southern flounder as “overfished” from 2002 to 2005 and “depleted” from 2006 to 2013. In 2005, as mandated by state law, a Fisheries Management Plan was adopted by the Marine Fisheries Commission to end overfishing of Southern flounder and achieve a sustainable harvest. Now 10 years later, there is no data indicating the purposes of the plan – to rebuild stocks and get back to a sustainable harvest – have been met.
The 2014 stock assessment cannot technically prove that overfishing continues, but it verifies that Southern flounder numbers are still low. And to make matters worse, much of the commercial harvest is among “recruitment” stocks, smaller juvenile fish that haven’t yet spawned. The state’s Southern flounder fishery now consists primarily of younger fish because the larger flounder have been mostly wiped out by fishing pressure.
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Dr. Louis Daniel, director of the DMF, has stated a minimum 40 percent reduction in the Southern flounder harvest is required to avoid a collapse of the stock. Ironically, the fisheries biologist who tried to warn the MFC of the looming problem with river herring was none other than Daniel, a member of the scientific staff before becoming DMF director.
Following last February’s MFC meeting, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources granted the commission’s request to implement a supplement to the Southern flounder plan seeking an emergency plan to reduce harvests between 25 and 60 percent. The goal is to give the juvenile fish another year to spawn before they’re harvested. At the May MFC meeting in New Bern, the commission voted unanimously to move this supplement process forward with a public comment period and a final vote in August. Sounds like a story with a happy ending, right?
Disappointed by these emergency measures, the N.C. Fisheries Association has said a supplement would be “irresponsible” and a “reckless attempt” to solve a problem that can be better addressed with further study. To create this delay, a friendly legislator inserted a paragraph into the Senate’s DENR budget that prohibits the MFC from adopting supplemental plans until July 1, 2016.
In the interim, the commission must review its criteria for supplemental plans and report back to the legislature for approval.
While conservation groups are calling for common-sense solutions to protect a public trust resource, the commercial fishing industry is asking legislators and the MFC to ignore the science showing Southern flounder is on the verge of collapse so it can continue to profit from a depleted stock. If lawmakers want to help the commercial fishing industry, they should direct the DMF to stop managing our marine resources for the maximum commercial harvest and start managing them for the maximum benefit of all North Carolinians.
Our legislators and the MFC should call on the commercial fishing and seafood industries to join conservation groups and the recreational fishing business in long-term preservation of public trust resources. We should work together on solutions to the continued overfishing of Southern flounder rather than seek legislative interference to maintain the downward spiral of the current status quo.
David Sneed is the executive director of Coastal Conservation Association of N.C.