June 17, 2015

Commentary: Changes to flounder plan
not fair to our commercial fishermen


By SANDY SEMANS

The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission is meeting in New Bern today to take comments on draft proposals to supplement Amendment 1 of the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan.

That might sound like a routine housekeeping step needed to ensure the viability of the state’s fishery resources. However, it is not.

For newcomers to the wacky world of fisheries management to understand what’s wrong with this picture, time has to be rolled back to 1997 when more than a year’s work finally culminated with the passage of the North Carolina Fisheries Reform Act of 1997.

Stakeholders – both recreational and commercial fishermen, along with scientists, regulators, and just ordinary non-fishing members of the public -- met regularly to study the state of North Carolina’s fisheries and the process used to regulate it.

Ironically, the concern that prompted studying the issues was the cry that there were too many crab pots in the water. But when the legislation was finally passed, the one item left without resolution was the proliferation of crab pots!

But those around the table worked hard for many months, trying to understand each other’s viewpoints, decide the best and fairest way to manage the resource, and come up with a blueprint of how management decisions would be made in the future.

While all this work was going on, the Coastal Conservation Association was working to try to get a net ban in the state, thus shutting down the commercial industry. Although the group has always presented itself as representing the recreational fishermen of the state, the truth is its small membership in no way reflects the state’s very large recreational fishery.

The "conservation" in the group’s name shouldn’t mislead anyone. Its purpose has never been conservation. The group was started by the late Walter Fodren, Texas oil millionaire who worked to get net bans all along the Gulf Coast. Fodren also used the group and its state chapters to seek gamefish status for red drum and striped bass, which made them off limits to commercial fishermen. Fodren was a personal friend of the presidential Bush family, and before George W. Bush left office, he gave the family friend a gift – he made striped bass a gamefish in federal waters.

But back to the ‘90s. The net ban attempts were fought off and the Act was finally made into legislation. It accomplished a number of things – a cap was placed on how many commercial fishing licenses could be issued. This was due to an influx of fishermen from other states who had lost their livelihoods when the CCA managed to shut down the commercial fisheries in Florida and other states.

Attempting to replace the political whims that had been  increasingly driving management decisions, the Act also laid out a process to ensure that fishery management plans were based on science and reasonable protection of the resource and that stakeholders were given the opportunity to share their experience and insight on how goals could be met.

And now, 18 years later, the Marine Fisheries Commission is side-stepping the process to consider a list of options that differ from those suggested by the Division of Marine Fisheries staff. Instead of bringing the science, the regulatory staff and the fishermen to the table to study the matter so that they can make the correct changes to get the best outcome, the MFC wants to invoke “emergency” changes to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan. The incomplete science that they want to use as a basis for their decision didn’t pass peer review because it needs more data.

The six options being offered are a mix of seasonal closures, gear restrictions, changes in size limits, and other common practices.

But one option, if chosen, would become effective Jan. 1, 2016, and would prohibit the use of anchored large mesh gill nets and possession of flounder in internal waters. It would shut down gill-net fishing in the state without going through the proper process, having the correct data and complying with the Act.

To read all the options being considered, click here.

The Coastal Conservation Association is up to its usual tricks and is pushing this issue. During the work leading to the completion of the Fisheries Reform Act, the then-head of the group lied repeatedly during a meeting. Afterward, I asked him why he kept tossing out the same lies at every meeting. He looked at me, laughed, and said that if he said it enough, it would be taken as fact. “Perception becomes reality,” he said.

If the commercial fishermen are shut out of the flounder fishery, many will be left with no income. And since flounder is a favorite local seafood at area restaurants, the owners will have no choice – they will have to buy it from other states or take it off their menus.

In 2012 and 2014, commercial fishermen landed 1.7 million pounds of Southern flounder and in 2013, 2.2 million pounds. This was in spite of the day, time, and gear restrictions in place to help reduce interaction with sea turtles.

The fishery is currently closed until at least Sept. 1 to reduce interactions with turtles. However, no action has been taken against recreational fishermen who also have "interactions" with turtles. Pier fishermen often find turtles on their lines and are left with little choice other than to cut the line. The line can entangle the creatures, and deaths can  result.

If you didn't make the meeting and you want to comment on how unfair the option of banning nets will be -- for our fishermen, consumers, and business owners -- you can do it electronically or in writing.

Comments may be sent electronically to: [email protected].
Written comments may also be submitted to: Southern Flounder Comments
c/o Nancy Fish, P.O. Box 769, Morehead City, N.C. 28557.

The commission is scheduled to vote on what management measures to implement at its August business meeting in Raleigh.

More information on the proposed flounder rules and other commercial fishing issues is also available from the North Carolina Fisheries Association at www.ncfish.org.


(Sandy Semans is a retired newspaper editor and reporter who now works as a free-lance writer. During her career, she has often written on fisheries issues and worked for the commercial fishing industry from 1996-1997.  She lives in Stumpy Point.)

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