Documentaries

Net Effect: The fight over flounder

Posted October 26, 2015 7:46 a.m. EDT
Updated October 27, 2015 6:50 a.m. EDT

— 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.”

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.”