DAN KIBLER COLUMN: NC flounder future turning into total loss for most fishermen

It appears my family has made another good decision to vacation in South Carolina this September – for the second year in a row.

Dan Kibler

If I ever wondered whether we should have gone to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, any doubt disappeared last Thursday, when the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission announced that there will be no recreational fishing for flounder this year. The month-long season for September 2022, reduced to the last two weeks of September in 2023, will be no weeks this September. The state says we have caught too many, and we must let things rest a year to “preserve the fishery.”

So the money we spent for a cottage in Avon on the Outer Banks in 2022, the money we spent at the seafood restaurants, for bait, for boat, truck and SUV gas, for groceries, for boat-launching fees at a marina, all those expenditures will all go to another state for the second year in a row. Call it a protest at the way the state’s saltwater fisheries are being managed.

When will North Carolina figure out its short-sighted policies are going to keep the tourism business leaking like a sieve? Already, fishermen in South Carolina are noticing how many boats with North Carolina registration numbers have arrived south of the border, where you can catch two redfish, five flounder and 10 speckled trout every day, instead of one, zero and four in North Carolina.

Here are the basics of the flounder decision. In March 2021, in an effort to try and rebuild the struggling population of summer flounder in inshore waters, the Commission adopted a management plan that aimed to reduce the harvest by 72%, with a goal of having the population restored in 10 years. The plan divided the available flounder to be caught between commercial and recreational fishermen, 70% to 30%. The plan dictated that in 2023, the percentage should move to 60/40 commercial/recreational, and in 2024 and beyond, to 50/50. But in February 2022, Commission members voted to delay those changes by two years, keeping the divide at 70/30 through 2024.

The 30% that recreational fishermen were allotted came to about 170,000 pounds, so the season in 2022 was reduced to the month of September, with a 1-fish daily creel limit. In 2022, recreational fishermen caught 226,995 pounds of flounder, about 55,000 pounds too many. That number included an arbitrary figure for “dead discards” – fish that were caught and released because the season was closed or caught and released that September because they were didn’t measure up to the state’s 15-inch size minimum.The state has determined that 9% of those fish do not survive being caught and released, and in 2022, that number was 52,722 pounds.

The rules of the management plan require any “overages” in catches to be applied to the next season’s quota, so we were allowed to catch around 114,000 pounds of flounder in 2023, and the season was reduced to the last two weeks of September. The Commission got notice at a scheduled meeting last week that, including 41,000 pounds of dead discards, we caught 241,000 pounds of flounder. That puts us about 130,000 pounds over, and the overage applied drops this year’s quota to about 43,000 pounds of fish. Marine fisheries officials predict that we’ll kill that many pounds of fish just by the number we catch and release throughout the year – when we aren’t allowed to keep any.

The rub is, had the Commission not voted in 2022 to keep the commercial fishing quota at 70% of the total, the increased quota for recreational fishermen in 2023 would have mitigated a lot of the “overage.” And with an even bigger quota this year, we would likely have had enough fish for at least another two-week season this September, maybe longer.

If any of you are wondering how recreational fishermen caught about 15% more flounder in two weeks in 2023 than they caught in four weeks in 2022, you’re thinking along the same line as I am.
And so, likely, are federal fisheries managers.

In August 2023, the feds revealed a study indicating that recreational fishing effort had been overestimated by 30% to 40%, because of something statistical called “survey bias.” In other words, fish caught by us weekend warriors haven’t been counted accurately.

The feds said they would initiate more studies this year to double-check the info. In other words, we’re going to run our numbers again to make sure before we tell you exactly how bad the numbers you’ve been using are.

Adjust recreational flounder catches the past two years by the 30% to 40% the feds say is needed, and you figure out quickly that we’re not catching too many flounder, and we probably should be allowed to have them in our fishing crosshairs for several months.

There’s no such reporting problem for the commercial guys. They get “trip tickets” every time they sell a fish, so the number of pounds they caught in 2022 – 528,164 – is reasonably accurate. Of course, had their quota been reduced to 60% last year, they might have had trouble. And at 50% this year, as originally proposed, they might face their potential catch being reduced. Remember, they get 70% of the total catch, but the recreational guys are losing their season to “preserve the fishery” because they’ve gone over their 30%. Can we count on a 60/40 split in 2025, and 50/50 splits beginning in 2026?

Don’t put any money on it.

Can it get much worse? Stay tuned. You can’t count anything as being out of the question.

Delayed-harvest trout streams open on Saturday

On June 1, this Saturday, 32 streams and two lakes that have been close to the harvest of mountain trout will, gloriously, open again.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources classifies these waters as “delayed harvest” and designates them as catch-and-release only from Oct. 1 until the first Saturday in June every year. Then, for four months, fishermen can take home up to seven fish per day.
These waters are heavily stocked, and plainly, the fishing is usually great.

On Saturday, only anglers under the age of 18 can begin fishing at 6 a.m. At noon, the grown-ups can join in the fun.

Delayed harvest waters are posted with black-and-white, diamond-shaped signs, designating them as different from hatchery supported and wild trout waters.

Dan Kibler has covered the outdoors since 1985 as outdoors editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and later as managing editor of Carolina Sportsman until his retirement in 2021.