Southern Flounder: Fish, family and uncertainty
Shelby White is a graduate student in the Masters of Coastal and Ocean Policy Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. As a part of the commercial fishing industry in NC, she has witnessed first-hand the issues occurring between commercial and recreational user groups. Shelby's research focuses on the socio-economics of commercial fishermen in the Albemarle Sound, providing insight into how recent southern flounder regulations will impact the commercial fishing industry in the area.
Historical accounts of eastern North Carolina often begin with tales of Algonquin tribes settling along the bountiful coastline and relying on the water as a means of survival. Using primitive tools to harvest species such as shad, striped bass, and herring, the Algonquin tribes and their discovery of North Carolina’s invaluable water resources paved the dreary road for what has become fisheries management.
The term “fisheries management” sounds relatively simple. Professionals and scientists within the field make sure fishes and other marine species are sustainable and viable for years to come. Since the purpose of management is to sustain fisheries that are important to both the commercial and recreational industry, it would seem that both stakeholders accept management decisions and regulations with ease. Unfortunately, fisheries management is far more contentious and convoluted, with most management decisions exacerbating conflicts between and within the commercial and recreational industry. These decisions must account for multiple stakeholders and potential user group conflicts, making fisheries management more about managing people, rather than fish.
North Carolina’s commercial and recreational fishing industries are a source of tourism, recreation, employment, income, and food for the state. However, these two groups of fishermen often find themselves at odds with one another when it comes to fisheries management and regulation. With the decline of many fish species equally important to each industry, commercial and recreational fishermen blame each other. As a result, fishery managers struggle to make equitable and politically palatable decisions.
The recent controversy over the southern flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma) in the Albemarle Sound of North Carolina highlights the difficulties of fisheries management. Southern flounder is one of the most prominent species found in North Carolina, with significance to both the commercial and recreational industry. The southern flounder is the most economically valuable finfish species in the commercial industry and a popular target species in the recreational industry.
Recent stock assessments of the southern flounder place the species under “concern,” raising alarm between commercial and recreational fishermen. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) suggests the sustainability of the species at current harvest is questionable. Other scientists, however, claim these results do not account for the mixing of stocks and suggest the data is highly uncertain. With potential for regulation, commercial and recreational fishing interests politicize the science and practice of fisheries management. Commercial fishermen question the accuracy of the stock assessment and the legality of proposed management plans, while recreational fishermen focus on extensive regulation of large mesh gill net practices.
Faced with making decisions mired in scientific uncertainty and cultural value tradeoffs, the Marine Fisheries Commission, the regulating body of NCDMF, held several meetings inviting public comment from all stakeholders. Public comment included outcries from commercial fishermen whose livelihoods were at stake, as well as recreational fishermen who believe the large mesh gill net is to blame for southern flounder declines. Despite pleas from both sides, the Marine Fisheries Commission developed regulations that affected both groups of fishermen, pitting them against each other once again.
Evidence demonstrating flounder stock variability decline, naturally or anthropogenically caused, increases hostility between the commercial and recreational industry. It is important that the future of fisheries management account for these user group conflicts and find a way to support regulations that not only aim to bring back North Carolina’s once thriving fisheries, but that are also politically acceptable to all stakeholders.