In August N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission made the difficult decision to adopt Amendment 2 to the state’s Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan. The plan was developed by the Division of Marine Fisheries with the assistance of the Southern Flounder Advisory Committee. Amendment 2 contains strict requirements to significantly reduce harvest and discards of Southern flounder which are, and have been for some time, overfished with overfishing occurring.
Southern Flounder are an important recreational and commercial species and the division understands these reductions will cause hardships for both groups. However, for the past 20 years, data from not only North Carolina but South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, shows an alarming reduction in spawning stock biomass and a declining trend in juvenile recruitment. This has resulted in a scenario where our fishery, which accounts for almost 60% of the four-state harvest, is almost exclusively made up of two year-classes for a species that lives to be nine or more years old.
This summer produced some excellent southern flounder catches, in part due to lower harvest numbers following hurricane Florence that allowed many overwintering females to grow. Almost all these fish sampled by the division, including the larger ones, were fast-growing age-1 or slower growing age-2 fish. In other words, these fish, including the larger females, had not yet left the inlets and spawned. The key to rebuilding this fishery is to allow more of these fish to escape through our inlets, where they move to nearshore reefs and eventually offshore to spawn.
Amendment 2 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan sought to provide limited peak season access to the fishery by both recreational and commercial fishermen while reducing overall harvest. In this focused edition of the Insight, we describe the current status of the southern flounder stock, the measures put in place by the Marine Fisheries Commission, and the reasons for the different season configurations between commercial and recreational.
Southern flounder are a highly fecund species and if we can rebuild the older age classes in this stock, the way red drum are being rebuilt for example, the spawning potential could be tremendous. While fishery management plans, by law, must provide reductions based on 10-year rebuild projections, this plan, like all other state fishery management plans, will be reviewed annually so it is not a 10-year static plan as many think. Management measures to provide more flexibility, slot limits, quotas, and a look at other flounder species harvest will be addressed in Amendment 3, currently underway.
I want to thank the Marine Fisheries Commission for taking on and passing these difficult management measures to ensure that future generations of North Carolinians have access to a truly sustainable southern flounder fishery.
Thanks, and stay safe out on the water.