Flounder matter smells fishy

Published September 4, 2015

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, Executive Producer and Moderator, NC SPIN, September 4, 2015.

When I was a boy we could walk out on the shore of our Neuse River summer home, cast out a line on a rod and reel and catch enough good-sized Croakers for supper in about an hour. Many an afternoon was spent “crabbing.” We would tie a fish head on a string, weighting it down with several nails or a lead sinker, throw it in the river and before long a Blue crab would be tugging on your line. Using a pole net we could usually catch enough for momma to make a delicious crab stew.

Those “good old days” are long gone for reasons including topsoil runoff, sewerage spills and pollution, but chief among them is the overfishing of our waters by commercial fishermen. On some occasions we have counted as many as six commercial trawlers within our vista hauling up most anything that lives. Crab pots are so thick along our shoreline it is difficult for boaters to dodge the floaters marking them. Commercial crabbers show little respect for those who want to swim or operate sailboats, kayaks or motorboats, as they place their pots within yards of docks or the shoreline and threaten to report anyone who moves them. There’s a hefty fine assessed if caught.

Commercial fishermen are important. They employ many, provide food for us and make a significant contribution to our economy. Gas, insurance, labor and shipping costs have risen more dramatically than prices for their catch; their solution has often been larger boats, bigger nets and more time spent dragging those nets. You don’t have to be a scientist to know supplies have dwindled. Commercial fishermen have lobbyists and make hefty political contributions, so they have pretty much gotten their way in the establishment and enforcement of rules that might slow down the depletion and allow supplies to be replenished.

Look at what’s happening right now with Flounder. The Marine Fisheries Commission within the Department of Environment and Natural Resources proposed a new “supplement,” a move to allow changes to the Flounder Management Plan to be made more quickly, until the next review and plan amendment could be undertaken. Commercial fishermen believed this supplement would result in restrictions and wanted to stop the action. Representative Bob Steinburg from Edenton interrupted the MFC meeting on the matter and issued a thinly veiled threat that the legislature would override the action if the commission passed it. He and 12 other coastal legislators wrote a forceful letter to DENR Secretary Donald van der Vaart suggesting no action be taken. The appointed commission complied.

After successfully disrupting the meeting, Steinburg was caught on tape in the hallway saying the public’s opinion on fisheries issues doesn’t matter. What matters, he asserted, is fairness to the commercial fishing industry. This screams of pay-to-play politics.

Recreational anglers don’t have the powerful lobbyists or make large contributions to politicians so their voices are not heard, even though it has been demonstrated they provide more economic impact to our economy than commercial fishermen.

Can we agree there should be room for both the commercial and sport fishing enthusiasts to co-exist? But the playing field needs to be leveled to be fair to both. What’s going on now smells fishy.

September 4, 2015 at 10:49 am
Rick Sasser says:

Thank you for this commentary. It is accurate, much needed and very much appreciated.

Below is a letter that I wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown-

Dear Senator Brown,

Based on personal conversations with members of the House and Senate, it has become clear that you had a hand in the events at the August 20th MFC meeting regarding the infamous "letter from 13", maybe even wielding the conductor's baton from the legislative side.

It's also now clear, that the items in the budget bill- 14.10E Fishery Management Plan Procedures, 14.10F Joint Enforcement Agreements, 14.10G Commercial Fishing For-Hire Logbook and 14.10H Disclosure of Personal Identifying Information were placed there to help sell your sales tax redistribution plan, or a better way of putting that would be to buy the influence that the commercial fishing industry has over the coastal communities in Brunswick, Currituck, Carteret, Dare and New Hanover counties so that those counties' leadership would not fight your tax plan. Under your plan, those counties are some of the biggest losers of sales tax revenue.

Is the general public going to support a Robin Hood sales tax redistribution plan that was paid for by enabling commercial fishermen to continue setting gill nets that kill federally protected endangered species like sea turtles, sturgeon and marine mammals in order to continuing fishing on the depleted southern flounder stock? The Director of DMF has stated publicly that the southern flounder stock is currently being overfished and data shows that it has been overfished for the past 23-years.

Is it fate that southern flounder needs at minimum a 40% reduction in harvest and that gill nets catch 42%?

A temporary gill net ban under the supplement process is a reasonable solution to an obvious problem. Pound nets and gigs can and will continue to commercially harvest every pound of flounder the resource can sustainably give. While this fishery is recovering, the MFC can evaluate all gears and harvest methods to develop a long-term management strategy that insures sustainable harvest.

Over 5,000 citizens expressed their opinion through emails, letters, petitions and personal appearance before the MFC in regards to the Southern Flounder Supplement Plan. In total out of 986 emails, 260 letters and 3,976 petition signatures, there were 5,177 citizens who voiced support for the supplement process and for enacting substantial measures to reduce southern flounder harvest and end unsustainable fishing practices. Proposal #1 of the Supplement, which includes approximately a 50% harvest reduction and a ban on large mesh gill nets, received overwhelming public support. Only 47 comments during the supplement process supported status quo for commercial fishing interests.

Did you know that in your District, Onslow and Jones Counties, in 2013 only 221 people commercially sold fish that were reported through the NCDMF's mandatory Trip Ticket program?

Did you know that in your District in 2013 there were 25,876 individuals licensed to recreational fish in NC's coastal waters?

1% is an important number you should grasp.

Commercial fishermen selling fish represent less than 1% of your constituents who have coastal fishing interests.

Out of 5,222 public comments under the Supplement process less than 1% supported status quo for commercial fishing, unsustainable harvest that uses unsustainable and unmanageable gill nets.

As a politician you should think about 5,000+ comments during a statewide public comment period and the makeup of your constituents with fishing interests, both show commercial fishing support at less than 1% with 99% supporting pro-resource interests.

99% to 1%, if that was an election poll which side would you like to be on?

Justice Louis D. Brandeis said that "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

Is it not eerie how similar Justice Brandeis' name is to Louis B. Daniel, Director of the NCDMF.

Lawyers and judges should be giving legal opinions, not a marine biologist, but it would be shame to start involving them in fisheries matters that are so obvious and have such simple fixes, and given the over-whelming public support for those fixes.

I request that you remove your Senate fisheries rules from H-97 for they will ultimately bog down the budget process with much debate and public scrutiny. The resulting sunlight will not be good for you, the Senate, the House, the Leadership, the Governor or the Republican Party.

September 4, 2015 at 4:09 pm
Sue Schwartz says:

One can only hope that Mr. Sasser's letter will be read and digested but one isn't sure that will happen.

September 5, 2015 at 10:06 pm
Van Heath says:

The 1 percent of North Carolinians that are commercial fishermen provide many jobs and place food on the table for an almost limitless number of peoples. Recreational fishermen; while certainly important, do provide many jobs but the number of people they feed is limited. We need to protect our commercial fishermen and not use doctored data to attempt to put them out of business.

September 6, 2015 at 11:33 am
Rick Sasser says:

Van Heath, you misinterpreted the 1% data. Commercial fisherman legally selling fish represent about 0.026% of NC citizens.

There are 9.9 million people in NC. In 2014 only 6,785 commercial fishing licenses (SCFL and RSCFL) were sold or renewed and of those only 2,793 were actually used by 2,639 people to sell fish under NC's law that requires commercial fishermen to sell fish to a licensed Dealer and for that Dealer to report those sales under the mandatory Trip Ticket Program.

The question begs an answer as to why almost 60% of commercial licenses report no sales. Is there that big of a black market for "off book" sales in NC for which a significant portion of those cash transactions have no reported taxes being paid? Are individuals using commercial licenses to circumvent recreational creel limits? What ever the answer, the system is broken and having a significant impact on biologist's ability to manage our important fisheries.

These are important fisheries.

A 2010 NCDMF study by Scott Crosson found that recreational anglers contributed $1.6 billon in total economic impact to NC's economy while creating 18,000 jobs.

For 2011, commercial fishing analysis found an annual total economic impact of $136 million creating 5,086 job.

Yes, that recreation value is in BILLIONS.

The Director of the NCDMF recently stated that the commercial southern flounder fishery in NC is fishing on almost 100% females that are 90% to 95% juveniles that have never spawned and that coast-wide abundance numbers are dropping from NC to Florida. This is unsustainable fishing. Southern flounder is in jeopardy of a total collapse if there are two bad years of back-to-back recruitment.

It is false to assume that NC commercial fisherman are needed to "place food on the table for an almost limitless number of peoples". Thinking that our coastal finfish species are limitless has been the problem and many of those species are now listed as Depleted or Concern on stock status reports. Landings are at historical lows not due to regulation, but because of lack of abundance due to overfishing.

September 9, 2015 at 10:00 pm
Bruce MacLachlan says:

This is the letter I wrote to Sen Brown. In fairness to Mr. Brown, they seem to have backed off from the intervention threatened, mostly, I believe due to a loud public outcry from sportsfishermen and people who just plain care about preserving our marine fisheries for future generations. Time will tell if they really "get it."


Sen Brown:

I am a constituent, and I am an avid coastal recreational fisherman, as are over 23,000 Onslow County residents.

I am writing because I am appalled at the NC Senate's efforts to insert language in the current Budget Bill that would prevent the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) from implementing a supplement to Southern flounder Fisheries Management Plan (FMP). Moreover, your name is all over this effort even though you staunchly deny any involvement.

I'll spare you the arguments about the sad state of Southern Flounder stocks in NC, the appropriate corrective measures, or the proper roles and responsibilities of DMF, the MFC and our legislature vis a vis our public trust resources. You've already seen that.

So I'll just come out and say it. I'm infuriated at your involvement in this underhanded back room political gamesmanship and expect a much higher level of integrity and transparency from my elected representatives. I am a life-long sportsman with grand children, and I want our coastal resources to be preserved first and foremost. I am also a life-long conservative Republican and a retired Marine Corps veteran with 30 years of service. If this is the representation that you and your fellow Republican legislators have to offer for 500,000 North Carolina CRFL license holders, then you can no longer count on my support as a voter. I am extremely disappointed in NC's Republican Party.

September 14, 2015 at 5:24 pm
Sarah Jo Wall says:

Thank you for the memories of the Neuse River. The rest of the article went by the wayside once my mind wandered by to catching croakers and going crabbing and then eating them. Oh, How I wish I could go back one more time to Dawson's Creek on the Neuse river. Those were the days. Thank you again for the article and it is ashamed that anything could destroy what used to be so much fun.