Last month, North Carolina residents witnessed political shenanigans at their worst. The state’s Marine Fisheries Commission was preparing to make necessary adjustments to the fisheries management plan for one of the most important fish species in North Carolina. At the last minute, raw political pressure was injected into the process forcing the commission to postpone its decision.
The southern flounder is a crucial marine species – a favorite of anglers fishing both for the dinner plate and for recreation, as well as of commercial fishermen for which southern flounder is a top income producer. Unfortunately, the southern flounder is in crisis, due to the lack of adequate management and protection. The state’s Division of Marine Fisheries asked the commission to implement a supplement plan to reduce the harvest of this fishery immediately and not wait for the passage of a slower amendment to the management plan. The amendment process could take at least three years and as many as five years, given North Carolina’s cumbersome regulatory process.
The supplement process has been publicly transparent, allowing ample public input through both oral and written comments. During the comment period, the division received 986 email comments, 260 letters and 3,976 petition signatures. Only 45 comments out of 5,222 opposed significantly reducing the southern flounder catch. That is less than 1 percent of the comments that did not support strong protection of the resource.
The public overwhelmingly supports major reductions in the harvest of the southern flounder fishery because the science is clear in what is needed to save the flounder. This species has been considered depleted since 2006. The director of Marine Fisheries has stated the stock has likely been overfished for 23 years, and overfishing continues. The 2015 stock assessment indicated the commercial harvest is now 90 percent juvenile fish that have yet to spawn once. The director’s best scientific estimate is the harvest needs to be reduced by at least 40 percent, and significant reduction needs to occur before this fall’s season. We cannot afford to wait any longer.
Despite the overwhelming public support and the clear scientific mandate, the commission decided not to do its duty and determine the level of harvest reduction for the fishery. Why? A member of the General Assembly warned the members that, if they went too far, there would be consequences at the legislature. Then, the secretary of DENR, to whom the director of Marine Fisheries reports, sent his attorney to read a letter stating the secretary did not think the commission should pursue a supplement because of legislative concern. The commission, on the advice of its attorney, decided to postpone its decision and to reconvene Sept. 16 to take up this issue again. These actions were unprecedented 11th-hour political maneuvers that threw a monkey wrench into a thorough and transparent process.
North Carolina residents deserve better than allowing political intimidation by a small group of legislators to circumvent the process that is supposed to be decided on science, data and facts by an expert panel of state citizens who are appointed solely to make these decisions. The people have spoken, and the Marine Fisheries Commission must be given the opportunity to protect this vital natural resource. The flounder cannot wait any longer.
Robin Hayes is a senior adviser to the NC Wildlife Federation. Eddie Smith is CEO of Grady White Boats, Inc.