RALEIGH, N.C. – Southern flounder is critical to the fishing economy of eastern North Carolina, but its population has dwindled to dangerously low levels, despite years of efforts to reduce harvest and rebuild the fishery.
Senior Marine Scientist at the North Carolina Wildlife Federation Louis Daniel said the state’s Marine Fisheries Commission has chosen its own targets for commercial fishing and dismissed science.
Daniel said North Carolina has seen little progress in creating sustainable fisheries since enacting its Fisheries Reform Act more than two decades ago.
“We don’t have a recovered stock to show for after 20-some years of managing under the Fisheries Reform Act,” said Daniel. “We should have been much further along – and yet we don’t have a rebuilt stock in all that time.”
Daniel said since that 1997 legislation, many of the fisheries coastal economies depend on have declined – in some cases by 70% to 80%.
The Marine Fisheries Commission said it’s working on a new amendment to address the problem. It’s expected to be up for public comment early next year.
An assessment by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries found between 2013 and 2018, the southern flounder commercial harvest declined from 2.2 million pounds to only 900,000 pounds, and recreational harvest dropped by nearly half.
Daniel said scientific models show a 72% reduction in harvest is needed to begin rebuilding the southern flounder population. But he said he thinks competing interests often mean the data is sidelined in favor of other factors.
“We don’t make our management decisions based exclusively on the science,” said Daniel. “We take the science and then we reduce by social and economic factors.”
Daniel also noted that beyond commercial and recreational fishing industries, complex ecosystems depend on healthy fisheries.
“Because all these fish that we’re over-fishing are critical components, of a broader ecosystem that we count on – the estuary in our state,” said Daniel. “There’s no telling what kind of an economic engine a healthy marine resource in North Carolina could provide.”
Marine fisheries scientists want the state to accurately assess southern flounder stock and implement new management policies based on scientific data.