Recreational Anglers drastically over-fish Flounder Target for 2020

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By Easton Edwards

EASTERN NC – I listened in on the May quarterly business meeting of the Marine Fisheries Commission with a keen interest on the Southern Flounder catch numbers. I have previously stated (and basically bet my fellow fishermen) that they were going to see numbers they never dreamed were accurate! Little did I know what a surprise they would receive.

The target catch allowance for the recreational fishery in 2020 was 152,808 pounds of Southern Flounder. However, the actual poundage landed was a whopping 456,636 pounds. This means that the recreational sector OVERFISHED their target by 303,828 pounds, or roughly 300 percent! These results for 2020 are startling and disturbing. 

TOTAL REMOVALS OF SOUTHERN FLOUNDER 2020

You see, the percentage of Escapement (the proportion of a fish population that escapes the commercial and recreational fisheries to reach spawning grounds) is what the Southern Flounder species is being managed to. Each sector (commercial and recreational) has targets they are designated to achieve. The commercial sector, operating under a strict quota system, achieved the 52% target goal set by Division of Marine Fisheries to rebuild the spawning stock biomass in 10 years. The recreational sector, however, has failed miserably the last two years under a “target survey system,” knowN as MRIP, which stands for Marine Recreational Information Program. 

This survey is used to determine the actual number of fish that the recreational side catches. I have many friends that laugh at this. Most have never been surveyed, catch looked at and counted, or anything else that would lead them to believe these numbers are accurate. I also believe them to be inaccurate! 

If you survey any recreational fisherman (unless you are looking at his catch in the cooler) you are going to get a distorted (inaccurate) number from him – ALWAYS ON THE LOW SIDE. The MRIP now being used is inaccurate by as much as 25% on the low side when it comes to reporting recreational catch numbers.

This is not the fault of the Division of Marine Fisheries, or really anyone. It is a by-product of the system. Untold numbers of fishermen leave their own dock, and return there. What are the chances of them being surveyed? It is overall a flawed system that not only under-reports recreational catch, but takes too long to enter the time sensitive equation of fishery management. 

There was data also used to target the number of dead discards by the recreational sector. The suggested size in the data was for a 2.5 inch flounder, which was a joke!? Ask any flounder fisherman how he did, and he will truthfully say “I caught a bunch of fish that were just under-sized that we had to throw back.” This feedback strongly suggests that most flounder caught and released are probably between 10 inches and 14 inches. This is a vital statistic as it would indicate even further over-fishing by the recreational sector than is now documented. Perhaps as must a 10 to 15 more percent. 

All of this comes on the heels on a ‘special meeting’ called by the chairman of the Marine Fisheries Commission to discuss re-allocation of the percentages that each sector should be allotted. At this meeting, a motion was presented and approved that the allowance go from a traditional 80/20 split (commercial / recreational) to an eventual 50/50 split. In doing this, the recreational limits were raised to allow MORE CATCH in their sector. What this has accomplished is a much higher dead discard picture than was ever anticipated. This will only get worse in the coming years as their poundage allotment gets higher.

All of this points to a complete failure on the recreational sector to abide by a target or quotas set forth. In fact, one commissioner asked a direct question to the recreational representatives on how they plan to address this over-fishing. The silence was remarkable. Something like a cold night with nothing but crickets in the background!!

Eventually, one commissioner, who represents the recreational sector, stated he was just glad that recreational anglers had their chance to catch the fish first! Is this a proper way to look at fishery management? The special meeting was itself a questionable act – motions on catch quotas for each side had previously been established. 

Only through a special meeting – called by the Chairman – was this re-addressed and voted through differently. The meeting was highly unusual and suggests special interest involvement and pressure. 

The Division, and its new director, are now in a pickle. The next Fishery Management Plan is under development, but not in place. The recreational sector continues to OVERFISH horribly, but has no hard quota – or any credible data gathering system – it can rely on for accurate, timely data to use to shut down the fishery as needed when the ‘catch target’ approaches. THE CREDIBLE ACTION TO TAKE IS TO CLOSE THE RECREATIONAL SEASON COMPLETELY. 

The division will not do this because they set forth the targets, and the lack of timely reporting is the cause of over-fishing as much as the recreational sector. They probably will shrink the season and the daily creel limit. In doing this, they will face the anger and mistrust of the recreational sector, but they are not to blame. 

The special interest groups who pushed through the ridiculous bill that now dominates each fishery are to blame. These interests could never imagine that the very rules they put into place (to eliminate commercial fishing) would one day cause the average recreational fisherman to have shorter seasons and smaller bag limits. I find it ironic that the membership of these groups continues to blindly follow the rhetoric they put forth AND give good money to finance the very groups that are causing the recreational fishermen more harm than good. 

In a future flounder plan, if implemented, measures will be written in to address prior year overages for each sector. The commercial sector, operating under a strict quota system will achieve their targets and continue to fish under the supervision of the Division. The recreational sector – unless a hard quota system is developed, will continue to over-fish their targets.

This will force a system of ‘paybacks’ whereby direct overages will be immediately enforced the following year, with overage poundage being deducted for from that year’s target number. This will lead to year after year of continued closures for the recreational sector because they did not operate under a quota and shut down when instructed. Who will the CCA and other special interest groups blame? The commercial sector, of course! It will be, however, a clear bullseye on the recreational sector. 

You heard it here first!  The recreational sector will be their own demise. They will over-fish, have the payback deducted, and scream they did nothing wrong.  Only through timely and accurate reporting of catch – by both recreational and commercial sectors – can a species operating under a quota system be managed. Do not blame the Division of Marine Fisheries. They can only use accurate data that they are given in a timely manner to make critical quota decisions. 

Fish management should be for the better of all users. Not just wealthy, affluent citizens – but all. In the chaos of all that is fishery management, the most overlooked user group is often harmed the most. The consumer. 

Flounder season regulations will be out soon. Do not blame the Division of Marine Fisheries, or the commercial sector. Blame the ones who over-fished the target by 300% or more last year. Get your rod and reel. Go to a mirror, and smile. The simple fact that a “target” is being used on the recreational sector leaves no hope for timely management and season closure.