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North Carolina’s southern flounder stock is in trouble and an eventual closed season is one of the possibilities for the future, according to N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Director Dr. Louis Daniels.
“We enacted a plan to reduce over-fishing in 2005, and the law says you have to end over-fishing in 10 years,” said Daniels, in an interview earlier Tuesday. “So what happens if we get to 2015 and we haven’t achieved that goal? One response would be to close the fishery if that happened.”
Daniels is in a tough spot, caught between unhappy advisers, the needs of commercial fishermen, the N.C. marine fisheries law and a huge elephant-in-the room in the form of an emerging lawsuit over sea turtles.
In November, Jean Beasley, the director of the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, began litigation alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act due to the deaths of sea turtles from interactions with gill nets in the Pamlico Sound.
A resolution to the lawsuit could affect flounder gill netting in the state significantly. However, the state Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) voted two weeks ago in a conference call to extend the southern flounder season for another group of commercial fishermen who use pound nets, despite the opposition of Daniels, MFC chairman Rob Bizzell and the MFC’s Advisory Committee (AC) on southern flounder.
The move prompted three members of the flounder AC to resign.
“What’s the point of having an advisory committee if you don’t listen to the advice that’s given?” said Owen Lupton, a co-chairman of the AC and one of the three members to resign. “We are not following the plans we make. If you’re not going to follow the plans, then why make them?”
Lupton held a commercial seat on the AC. The other two members to resign, Ray Brown and co-chairman Joe Shute, held recreational fishing seats. All said they believed extending the pound net season (which now ends Dec. 15) was hurting a fisheries management plan that already was likely to fail.
Bizzell, also interviewed Tuesday, says the entire flounder situation is complicated by uncertainties.
“We are having this turtle situation and are facing possible litigation because of it,” Bizzell said. “The turtle lawsuit may impact commercial gill netters, it may solve some of the flounder problem for us. But we don’t know that. I thought it was unwise to extend the season for pound netters, to keep gear in the water longer, not knowing where this is all going to end up.”
At the time of the extension, members of the AC said the MFC process was broken.
“We’ve found ourselves having to beg them just to comply with the law and they haven’t done it,” said Brown, referring to the current law that over-fished species must be removed from over-fished status within 10 years. According to Daniels, that means by 2015 the flounder problem must be fixed, and although he said he sees progress, the state is far from that goal.
Daniels and the DMF were against the season extension for pound netters, but Daniels seems more worried about the bigger problems looming out there, including what is going to happen with the sea turtle lawsuit and what will happen if the over-fishing of southern flounder continues.
“We don’t necessarily know what the outcome of all this will be,” Daniels said. “These are relatively new laws, this is unprecedented in North Carolina. Because of the turtle problem, some solutions may be forced on commercial fishermen. But I can’t say that for certainty. We’ve got some time to try and solve this litigation issue, but changes are likely coming.”
Daniels says the DMF will recommend a 20.5 percent reduction in commercial flounder take in March 2010, when the MFC meets again. He says it is difficult to be more specific about what exact possible additional commercial and recreational limits may be enacted soon because so much of the flounder situation is tied up in the sea turtle lawsuit.
“There is a lot of attorney-client stuff we can’t talk about,” Daniels said.
Bizzell echoes those sentiments.
“I know there’s a whole lot of people frustrated about the process,” Bizzell said. “But some things we can’t talk about due to the lawsuit, even with the AC. This whole flounder issue may be moot due to the impact of the turtle litigation. The lawyers are meeting and just throwing out ideas. There may be restrictions coming out of that, which will end over-fishing.”
Daniels said although he disagreed with the MFC’s 5-2 vote to extend the commercial pound net season, he understood its thinking because pound nets have been shown to be among the most effective forms of commercial harvest in terms of reducing bycatch.
“Pound nets are expensive for those commercial fishermen who use them,” Daniels said, “and they are very resource friendly. Any unwanted bycatch can be released unharmed.”
Still, he said the vote did not send a good message, although he refused to say it surprised him.
“I don’t get surprised anymore,” Daniels said. “It was what it was. It’s just going to get harder and harder now. If we don’t enact something…some restrictions next year, then I don’t know where we’re going.”
Bizzell said the mechanics of the MFC decision to extend pound nets were faulty.
“I’ll never have another conference call meeting again,” Bizzell said. “You need to look people in the eye.”
But Bizzell defends the MFC as having been successful in areas outside of southern flounder.
“The red drum fisheries plan has been a success,” he said. “We are on top of speckled trout. And we’ve directed them to take a look at black drum, spot, croaker. We’ve got some open minds at work.”
Daniels said there is still time to fix the flounder fishery, but that time is running out.
“If we implement a good plan and have the necessary restrictions,” Daniels said, “I think we’ll be successful. The drop-dead date now is really May or June of 2010. The flounder season really kicks in during September, so before then you want to have something going. Otherwise, I don’t know what will happen.”