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. 


  1. What Shelby’s study and analysis totally ignores is the 37+ fold increase in the numbers of humans targeting these fishes. What most fishermen whether commercial or recreational think about as sustainable is that they be allowed to catch as many as they did last year or last few years. These animals would not be in the limited abundance they are now if not for the fact that over the past 300-400 years more and more people are catching and killing them (the fishes that is). No amount of management (size classes, limited seasons, MPAs) is going to prevent fish population decline and eventually ecological extinction if the reality of the inordinate human population growth that has taken place everywhere is not taken into account. Estimate of 270,100 people in NC (excludes remaining native Americans and slaves I assume) in 1780 vs over 10,000,000 today and this does not include tourists that come to NC to fish or eat in NC seafood restaurants.

    We (every human on Earth) are a scourge on the Earth each of us doing our own little bit of damage each day. If we continue to give higher consideration to the family histories and cultural values of the European humans and their descendants who have only recently populated NC (over past 200-300 years…fishes and Native Americans were here way long before that) there just won’t be any fishes for anyone to catch nor enough fishes to fulfill their ecological role. Very sad.

  2. I believe Shelby actually captured the situation as it is concisely. Fisheries management/stock assessment is a moving target with very few sharp shooters in academia doing the assessment's. I'm sure if we can put a man on the moon this situation can be figured out. It's going to take someone to decide to put the resources out to do it though. I believe it is unreasonable to put the assumption out that the only solution is for all humans to be eliminated to make the earth "whole again".


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