After spending over 50 years on and around the water, I have realized that without strong fisheries laws and effective conservation measures, the future of salt water fishing, and America's living marine resources, is dim. Yet conservation is given short shrift by national angling organizations and the angling press. I hope that this blog will incite, inform and inspire salt water fishermen to reclaim their traditional role as the leading advocates for the conservation of America's fisheries.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
STATE MANAGEMENT FAILS SOUTHERN FLOUNDER
Summer flounder management gets a lot of publicity, and has
for the last fifteen years, even though the management of that species has been
very successful. But there is another,
closely related fish, the southern flounder, which gets far less publicity, although
its management hasn’t been very successful at all.
Summer flounder are managed by the National Marine Fisheries
Service (NMFS), acting pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation
and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), while in federal waters; elsewhere, they
are managed by the states, acting jointly through the Atlantic States Marine
Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Less than
thirty years ago, summer flounder abundance was at the lowest level ever
recorded, but the population has been rebuilt since then, and remains at
healthy levels today.
Southern flounder are managed solely by the individual
states where they swim, with no coordination between jurisdictions. Magnuson-Stevens does not apply. Thus, there is no mechanism to manage and
rebuild southern flounder throughout its range, nor any means to legally assure
that needed management measures are taken.
The population has been declining for over a decade, particularly in the
waters of North Carolina.
North Carolina dominates the commercial southern flounder
fishery. According to NMFS’
commercial fisheries database, it was responsible for nearly 100% of
commercial landings since 2004. NMFS
reports that recreational landings are not as concentrated. North Carolina traditionally had the largest
harvest, but Florida also has significant landings and, in three of the past
five years, harvested more southern flounder than any other south Atlantic
Decreasing landings have led North Carolina to consider measures to conserve and
rebuild southern flounder in its waters.
2010, the state noted that
“North Carolina’s southern flounder stock is listed as
depleted, based on the 2009 stock assessment that determined that the stock is
still overfished and overfishing is still occurring. An improvement in the spawning stock biomass
and age class expansion occurred since the 2005 fishery management plan was
implemented, but further harvest reductions are necessary to rebuild the
As a result of that assessment, North Carolina announced
“[m]anagement measures to achieve a sustainable harvest of
southern flounder by ending overfishing and rebuilding the spawning stock by
2015 are the most important issues to be addressed in the management plan
However, amendments take a long time to put into place. It is now 2015 and the stock has shown little
if any improvement. North Carolina
commissioned a new stock assessment in 2014; however, that
assessment failed peer review, largely because such a single-state
assessment did not and could not take adequate account of flounder moving
between North Carolina’s waters and those of states as far away as Florida.
Had the 2014 stock assessment survived the peer review
process, it would have required substantial reductions in southern flounder
harvest, and perhaps a complete closure of the fishery. Even without the assessment to support the
action, Dr. Louis Daniels, executive director of the North Carolina Division of
Marine Fisheries, tried to move forward, saying
“We know we’ve got a problem.
Immature fish are being caught…The only way to improve spawning success
and likelihood of better recruitment, and (expansion) is not to catch as many
fish. The only way to move forward is a
reduction in harvest.”
Daniels referred the matter to the state’s Marine Fish
Commission, which began preparing a “supplement” to North Carolina’s southern
flounder management plan; in August, after receiving substantial public
comment, the Commission was supposed to finalize the supplement and begin the
That was when state politics intervened.
A number of state
legislators with commercial fishing constituencies wrote a letter to Donald Van
der Vaart, Secretary of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural
Resources, which objected to the supplement procedure, arguing that a more
detailed, and much more time-consuming, amendment process was required before
the harvest reductions, and associated gear restrictions, could be
implemented. Van Der Vaart notified the
Commission that he agreed with the legislators, and the southern flounder
supplement was removed from the agenda of the Commission’s August meeting.
“Because of the length of North Carolina’s regulatory
process, we realize that an Amendment to the current Southern Flounder [Fishery
Management Plan] could take as long as five years; longer given potential legal
tactics by interest groups who oppose the Amendment outcome…”
Every day that fishermen can delay harvest reductions is
another day that they can profit from overfishing the stock. So in state-managed fisheries, where no law
such as Magnuson-Stevens prohibits overfishing and sets a hard deadline for
rebuilding overfished stocks, fishermen are encouraged to drag out the
regulatory process for as long as possible, while enjoying the short-term
economic benefits that ensue.
North Carolina is supposed to revisit the southern flounder
issue later this month, but given the legislative opposition to meaningful
action, and the apparent agency sympathy for the legislators’ position, the
outlook for the flounder seems grim.
That would seemingly make southern flounder a good candidate
for ASMFC action; after all, fish migrate between various states’ waters, and
overfishing in North Carolina would presumably affect the availability of
southern flounder elsewhere on the coast.
“To address abundance and management concerns moving forward,
the Board discussed ways to improve the exchange of data and cooperation
between the South Atlantic states of Virginia to Florida to improve interstate
management and move toward the development of a regional stock assessment.
However, there is no chance that the authority of ASMFC will
be used to coerce North Carolina into taking serious management action, as
“The Board did not move forward with initiating a new ASMFC
[Fishery Management Plan].”
Other states have similarly interested persons sitting on
And that’s pretty typical not just for ASMFC, but for state
management generally, as people with economic interests in various fisheries,
unconstrained by the stock rebuilding mandates of Magnuson-Stevens, control the
Which may be why ASMFC hasn’t rebuilt even one
stock in at least 20 years, while the states manage fish…like southern
flounder. ----- NOTE: "State Management Fails Southern Flounder" first appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/.