Net Effect: The fight over flounder

Posted October 26, 2015
Updated October 27, 2015

— Eric Evenson is very, very worried about fish.

Evenson, 55, a lifelong North Carolinian, says he’s been fishing since he was a 5-year-old tossing a line into the surf at his grandfather’s cottage on Ocean Isle – one of the first two houses built on that beachfront.

“You could go out there and you could catch a fish almost any time, right in the surf,” Evenson recalled. “Spots, whiting, black drum. You would just feel that jerk on the line, and we would come in with a bucket full of fish.”

He remembers fishing off piers during the annual spot run every autumn. “You would see wall to wall people every year catching spots two at a time. Back when I was a kid, people were getting coolers full.”

Now, he says, the spot run is “anemic” – a symptom of the overall decline, he believes, of the state’s fishing stocks. These days, he says, it’s a good fishing day if he and his son John, 33, catch anything at all, even when they take their boat out to the best spots.

“I know what I see. I know that there aren’t the fish there used to be,” Evenson said. “People will say, ‘Well, they just weren’t biting today.’ Folks, they’re never biting. They’re never biting.”

Recreational fishing WRAL Documentary: Net Effect

The retired federal prosecutor hasn’t gotten involved in the political battle between the state’s recreational and commercial fishermen. Still, he and his son came to the legislature Sept. 8 to talk to lawmakers about their concerns, along with other recreational fishermen similarly worried about the state’s management of its fisheries – and angered by what some perceive as inaction and politicking by the Marine Fisheries Council.

That anger came to a head after an Aug. 20 meeting in Raleigh, a meeting at which the commission was set to vote on a plan to suspend gill net fishing in inshore waters as a way to reduce the harvest of Southern Flounder.

NC alone in unchecked use of gill nets

Southern Flounder makes up only a small portion of the finned fish harvested in North Carolina, but it is the most commercially valuable catch aside from shellfish.

However, the size of the state’s annual harvest of Southern Flounder has been in decline for the past two decades. In 1994, 4.9 million pounds of the fish were caught by commercial fishermen, with a market value of $8 million. In 2004, 2.5 million pounds were caught by commercial fishermen, worth $3.9 million. And in 2014, 1.7 million pounds were caught by commercial fishermen, worth $4.8 million.

North Carolina fishermen catch 96 percent of the Southern Flounder sold in the United States. Some say that’s because the state allows broad use of gill nets in inshore waters.

Gill nets are large nets, usually made of mono- or multi-filament nylon, that are anchored by weights at the bottom and buoys at the top. They’re commonly used by commercial fishermen to catch finned fish like flounder. They’re highly effective and indiscriminate, catching and killing any fish large and unlucky enough to be caught in the nearly-invisible net, as well as sea turtles and other protected species that happen upon them.

North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast that allows broad and extensive use of gill nets in inshore waters. South Carolina has banned the practice outright. Georgia allows inshore gill nets in the spring for commercial shad fishing only.

Inshore waters, like sounds and estuaries, are fertile grounds for fishing. They’re also where juvenile fish hide out until they grow large enough to survive in open water. Those waters along the state’s coast are the nursery for many species of commercially harvested marine fish, including flounder.

Mike Wicker, a scientist who serves on the Marine Fisheries Commission, called the flounder decline “very dire.”

“If you had a cattle farm and you killed all the calves before they became sexually mature,” Wicker explained, “your potential to have a ranch is going to be diminished very quickly, and that’s the situation we’re in.”

David Sneed is executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association, the main group representing recreational fishermen. He says commercial fishermen have blocked attempts to reduce the use of gill nets. “The science has been there to say, ‘Hey, we need to pull back on this. We’re over-harvesting these fish,’ but the push has always been there to say, ‘No, we need to catch more fish, you know, we need to be able to make money off of this resource.’”

But Jerry Schill, executive director of the NC Fisheries Association, the main group representing commercial fishermen, says the flounder fishery is not being overharvested.

“Everything’s not rosy by any stretch of the imagination but still, this most recent stock status report indicates that the stocks are in pretty good shape,” Schill said. “If we’re gonna talk about science, let’s look at the science and the data and find out - is the science behind banning gill nets?”

Precisely what the data shows is a subject of debate. Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Secretary John Evans says Southern Flounder are migratory, often moving up and down the seaboard, making it difficult for a single state to assess the size or health of the stock.

Evans said the state attempted to perform an assessment of the flounder fishery in 2014, but it was rejected by outside peer reviewers.

“We couldn’t use it for management purposes, but the underlying data showed there was some concern, so the secretary decided some mid-course correction was needed,” Evans said.

Fish fight takes a political turn

DEQ Secretary Donald Van de Vaart gave the commission the green light to formulate an amendment for flounder to the five-year Fishery Management Plan. For months, the commission heard public comments. Most were in favor of reducing the allowed commercial harvest of founder and restricting or banning the use of gill nets.

“The fish stocks have gotten smaller, and now everyone is fighting over the crumbs,” testified Robert Schoonmaker, a charter boat captain representing the Recreational Fishing Alliance of NC. “We need some drastic measures to correct some drastic mistakes.”

But commercial fishermen pushed back, saying the restrictions would drive them out of business.

“Why not work with fishermen, rather than always saying, ‘Catch less, catch less, catch less,’” commercial fisherman Terry Pratt asked the commission.

The day before the commission was poised to vote to severely restrict or ban gill netting in inshore waters, Van de Vaart sent the panel a letter “expressing concern” about such a major change.

“We think that some reduction should be required. We think it would be prudent to do that. But again, without the science being well settled, you don’t want to take any giant steps,” Evans explained.

Van de Vaart’s wasn’t the only voice of concern, either. The same day, Rep. Bob Steinburg visited the meeting to be introduced as Gov. Pat McCrory’s most recent appointee to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Steinburg, R-Chowan, took the opportunity to warn the panel that he and twelve other coastal legislators had sent a letter to Van de Vaart, saying they were prepared to take legislative action to undo any vote to ban or restrict gill nets, including a proposal to strip the panel of its authority to regulate flounder.

“I am not here to offer you any advice as to how you might want to cast your vote, but I can share with you this, that there are a significant number of legislators who are going to be watching this vote very, very carefully,” Steinburg said at that meeting. “If any decision that’s made is not interpreted as being fair, you will likely be dealing with the legislature moving forward.”

“So, not a threat,” he told the commission. “It’s just a fact.”

Although several commissioners did indeed take it as a threat, Steinburg told WRAL News he was only trying to be helpful by giving the panel “a heads up” about the letter before they took a vote.

“It was my understanding they were going to take this action as a result of discussions that had transpired among committee members that violated the open meeting laws. That was certainly a concern,” Steinburg said. “I’m not on one side or the other, although some are trying to portray me as being on the side of the commercial fishermen. I’m just on the side of fairness and openness and transparency.”

Evans said DEQ also advised the commission to delay the vote. “We had some new members that were sworn in at the August meeting. We felt it was important, because it’s a very important issue, to give them time to come up to speed.”

Without discussion, and some say in violation of the commission’s own procedural rules, Chairman Sammy Corbett, a commercial fisherman, removed the proposal from the agenda, saying he would call a special meeting in September to consider it.

But that meeting never happened. Corbett said he wanted all nine members present for the vote, but none of the dates he offered in September or October would accommodate all members’ schedules.

The Commission’s rules do not require all members to be present for a vote. Six of the nine are required for a quorum, and the six must include a representative of both recreational and commercial fishermen.

Vote delayed until November

The flounder amendment proposal is now scheduled to be heard at the panel’s regularly scheduled quarterly meeting, Nov. 18 to 20 at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.

Eric Evenson is planning to be there. He believes Corbett and Van de Vaart caved in to political pressure from the commercial fishing industry.

“I’m not against commercial fishermen,” he said. “The fishermen – all of them – they’re not politicians. They’re just guys trying to eke out a meager living. I understand that.”

Still, he’s worried that if action isn’t taken soon, the depletion of the state’s fisheries will progress to the point of no return.

“It’s the Wild West in North Carolina. You have these fish that are being scarfed up day after day, year after year for decades,” Evenson said. “There’s got to be some leadership, and there’s got to be some science behind it.”


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  • Rodney Taylor Oct 28, 2015
    user avatar

    I am 50yrs old and, like so many others, I too remember the days of old. I have witnessed our fishing resources deleted over the years to it's current point. The solution's just common sense; dragging the bottom and setting out large lengths of nets is the reason for the drastic decline over the years. The recreational fisherman catches one fish at a time and is able to release those that are not within the size/limits for a healthy stock healthy and alive. Gill Nets and Trawlers catch huge numbers of (by catch) that are killed. This by catch is typically our younger (nursery) fish; our future generations of fish. It's got to stop! Unlike the arguments expressed by the commercial industry, the science is very clear. NC is one of the few remaining states allowing such practices; those that have banned it have documented quick, vast improvements in the fish populations. Yes there are still fish out there MSSMITH2087 and Mr. Price but they are vastly diminished from just a few years ago.

  • msmith2087 Oct 27, 2015

    Research study by Deehr, R.A. (2012) Measuring the Ecosystem Impacts of Commercial Shrimp Trawling and Other Fishing Gear in Core Sound, North Carolina Using Ecological Network Analysis. Eat Carolina University. Access:
    determined all Productivity greater in whole ecosystem in areas open to trawling. The trawling stirs up the dead sea bottoms and disperses pollution. The NC Marine Fisheries Commission members that are Commercial Fisheries representatives are interested in Water Pollution. They would like to have this concern discussed and follow recommendations of the study. But the Marine Fisheries Commission is dominated by CCA members, that have their agenda. Meetings I have attended are dominated by Chuck Laughridge, CCA member that wants to remove all Commercial Fishing. Also, Recreational Fishermen belonging to the NC CCA are LESS than 10% of the Recreational Fishermen Licensed. Why is less than 10% Rec. Lic. dominating the MFC?

  • William Price Oct 26, 2015
    user avatar

    while i agree and strongly support banning of gill nets i must say this....learn how to fish and maybe you can catch something...all these comments i didnt catch 1 fish i didnt see any caught is complete garbage... there are still plenty fish to be caught....i caught over 20 40inch plus big redfish this weekend alone...theres still plenty to be caught thats why its called fishing not catching... maybe some of yall need to re think your fishing tactics

  • msmith2087 Oct 26, 2015

    Federal Clean Water Act was not followed when the State of NC approved to allow Martin Marietta mine to flood fishing creek Blount Creek in eastern NC by pumping up to 12 MILLION Gallons of waste water into Blount Creek. Blount Creek runs into Pamlico, Core, Albemarle Sounds and Neuse River. Division of Water Quality required no significant changes to address these Pollutions. Southern Environmental Law Center and Blount Creek Donations are trying to prevent this Major Pollution. Fish and seafood will be destroyed and RED TIDE, PFIESTERIA will appear. Millions of fish and sea life will be destroyed. Clean up POLLUTION. Follow Clean water acts which NC did not in 2013- current!

  • msmith2087 Oct 26, 2015

    Shad fishery was closed 2 years ago, then Shad Fishery data from NOA revealed, the Shad fish were not overfished in 2014. Folks have fish and seafood provided by Commercial Fishermen. Magnenson Stevens Act Federal law fosters Commercial Fishermen providing Fish and Seafood to US Citizens. Proceed cautiously. Major concern is water pollution and run off, spills from the Rivers inland that flow o the Coastal Waters. Keep the Coastal Waters and Rivers Clean Fish will increase! Not being done.

  • Clarence Hill Oct 26, 2015
    user avatar

    As I read the the comments--it seems everybody wants everybody else to step aside and let them have the fishing waters to themselves. If fish are so scarce it seems wise to shutdown all fishing--commercial and recreational--off shore, surf and inland--for three years allowing fish to mature and hatch. Let's share and share alike.

  • Stephanie Proctor Oct 26, 2015
    user avatar

    I am 52 years old and have been fishing the coastal waters of North Carolina since I was 6 years old. I have seen the damage these in shore nets have caused. I fish in VA. and SC and I always catch . I have worked side by side with Marine Fisheries Officers and Wildlife Officers at Atlantic Beach Morehead City etc. I know personally that North Carolina Commercial Fisherman fund and donate to their political allies. Donations are made by family members, businesses etc. so as not to be directly tied to the commercial fishermen, but the donations are being made! The officers are told which commercial fishermen they had better not check or stop. Also out of state commercial fisherman bring their boats into North Carolina because they know they can net inside the sounds. NETS should not be used in our sounds but until the commercial fishermen quit paying off our politicians by donations and campaign funds it is not going to stop.

  • Mark Matthews Oct 26, 2015
    user avatar

    "Is the science behind banning gill net fishing?"...really? Yeah, it's called 1st grade math. I am 50 and have been fishing since I was a child, mostly around Nags Head and Atlantic Beach and it has become futile. I have gone for an entire week before and caught almost nothing. Something really needs to be done.

  • Scott Householder Oct 26, 2015
    user avatar

    Agreed. Ban the inshore nets. You can hardly navigate around the damned things anymore. The inshore trawling is an abomination to our waterways. You can see the sometimes miles long, barren swaths of sand on the bottom with NO life.
    Hey, (to my knowledge) the computer guys don't commercially manufacture the old dot matrix printers anymore....Things change, folks. Sad thing is that the commercial guys could care less, they'll just motor on elsewhere and proceed to decimate that.

  • Tanja Davidson Oct 26, 2015
    user avatar

    Well I just got back from my fall fishing trip where I pay good money and plenty of it to rent an ocean front cottage at Emerald Isle and we didn't catch one, not one fish that was a keeper. We only saw two people at Bogue inlet pier catching fish and those were few and far between. One of those guys did catch 20 keeper sized Puppy drums but guess what? He could only keep ONE. In the meantime, the commercial fishing boats were using nets to catch lots and lots and lots of undersized fish and then selling them under a tent at the weekend flea market. Even those undersized fish and they smiled when quizzed about those fish and said "oh, the rules don't apply to us, we're commercial fishermen". How nice for them. When asked where they get their fish they pointed toward the sound/ocean and said 'right over there across from hwy 24'. How many petitions have we signed over the years? for what? Does the fishery really count more than tourism? Sad!