NC flounder season explained

Attention Anglers: Today, September 15, marks the official start of the flounder season. Unfortunately, the sport may not be as exciting this year as it has been in the past, due to an exceptionally restricted fishing season and strict quotas set by both the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) and the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. Consequently, local communities that depend on the fishing industry may experience an economic recession, and consumers will be forced to spend more on popular fish.

North Carolina’s wild fishing industry is worth an estimated $300 million and employs 5,500 North Carolinians, making it a vital source of income for coastal communities. Flounder, a flat fish with a mild fishy taste that lives on the ocean floor, has long been a major contributor to the demand for wild fish along the entire East Coast. However, according to the Marine Fisheries Commission, this high-demand fish has seen a significant decline in its population over the past few years.

The supposed decline in flounder populations, attributable in part to overfishing according to the MFC, has prompted a range of responses from our officials, including implementing reduced fishing seasons and quotas for both recreational and commercial fishermen. While the overarching goal is to promote flounder recovery, which is said to require a significant 72% reduction in fishing activity to stabilize, it is worth asking whether these measures may disproportionately affect small-scale fishers and exacerbate economic disparities.

This flounder season, anglers face a sharply shortened window of opportunity, spanning just two weeks (ending Sept. 29) — a stark contrast to previous years when the season spanned an entire month. This reduction raises legitimate concerns about its economic impacts on local businesses that rely on fishing tourism and seasonal trade, as well as the overall affordability of flounder for consumers. While the stated intention is to immunize flounder populations and ensure their long-term sustainability, we should treat such interventions with a degree of skepticism, considering their potential to inadvertently stress coastal communities economically.

Furthermore, the 2023 flounder season maintains a strict limit of one fish per person per day and a minimum size requirement of 15 inches. These restrictions cast a shadow over the once vibrant fishing culture that flourished along the North Carolina coast. For some fishermen, the overriding feeling is frustration as they navigate a landscape of changing regulations and uncertain economic prospects.

Hunters are even more upset and confused because the Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) has decided to set its own rules for the inland waters they oversee. While the WRC allows recreational anglers four flounder per day, anglers are afraid to keep more than one fish because of jurisdictional confusion: some waters are supervised by the MFC, some by the WRC, and some are jointly supervised.

Adding to the complexity, as the state battles declining flounder populations, it continues to push for the development of offshore wind farms. Flounder inhabit both shallow and deep water, making it uncertain whether construction in the ocean will further disrupt their population. Some may find it questionable that fishing would have been so limited prior to construction.

If there is poaching, who is to blame? Recreational fishermen blame commercial fishermen, and vice versa. But if recreational fishermen say they don’t do it, and commercial fishermen say they don’t do it, who does? Our waters have not suddenly reached the point where we need to reduce flounder catches by 72%. It also seems unlikely that such a drastic decline in flounder populations will now be a problem. Why weren’t limits enforced better in the past if the population was declining?

The emerging reality of flounder fishing, characterized by shorter seasons and tight limits, prompts us to question how well state officials are managing the delicate balance between environmental conservation and the economic well-being of coastal communities. Moreover, conservation efforts may seem counterproductive in light of the government encouraging the construction of wind turbines in the ocean. The outcome of this complex balance will undoubtedly shape the story of North Carolina’s flounder season, impacting not only the fishing industry itself but also the complex fabric of coastal economies and communities.

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