Sport fishing reports from all up and down the North Carolina coast tell us that the fishing for flounder is the best that have been seen in years. It’s a real relief to see this since the past few years have been disappointing to anglers who specialize in fishing for flounder.
Our fishery managers from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries and the other various federal fishery management agencies have been working for years to bring the flounder fishery up to acceptable levels. There have been restrictions on the gill nets, strictly enforced size and creel limits on the taking of out southern flounder and something seems to be bringing this fish’s population levels up to the levels that we’d like to call “acceptable.”
A little understanding of the biology of our southern flounder may help some people understand just what could (or has) had an effect of this fish.
Any seafood lover knows that one of the most desirable table fish in our waters is the flounder. The high demand for these fish is probably the number one factor that led to the decline in the population of southern flounder, not only in North Carolina waters but all along the Atlantic Coast as well.
Along with the high demand came the usual high prices that fishermen were paid for their catch. Commercial fishermen dropped their quest for other catches in order to pursue the better paying flounder. The pressure was put on the population of flounder and the most logical time and place for this pressure to be applied to the flounder was off our ocean inlets where the flounder gathered to spawn every winter.
I remember a phone call I received during the early 1970s from a friend who operated a fish house Down East. He asked me if I wanted some nice flounder and I asked him how much he wanted for them. His reply shocked me.
“I don’t want any money,” he said. “Just bring some ice chests and get all you want. The boats have been bringing in so many big flounder that we seem to have flooded the market with flounder. We sold all we can, we’ve dressed and frozen all our freezers can hold and we still have big trawlers tied up at our docks that are loaded with big flounder. It looks like we’re going to have to send them back out to sea-dump all these fish. I know that it’s a shame, but what else can we do? Take all you want because they’re going to be wasted if you don’t.”
These large ocean-going trawlers had been harvesting these big fish from their spawning grounds off the Oregon and Hatteras Inlets where the fish were massed and relatively easy to catch. The commercial fishermen had had a banner year and, just like some farmers experience when they have a bumper crop, the supply exceeded the demand and the price went down. The market was “glutted.”
These were the same years in which the sport fishermen were “slaughtering” the flounder in the surf near the inlets. The most effective method used during these times of over-abundance of flounder was to rig a large treble hook beneath a lead weight and simply drag it through the bottom off the beaches. Big flounder were “snagged hooked” and the sport fishermen filled their iceboxes with big flounder too.
I’m sure the fishery statisticians may have a different view of these excesses, but many feel that the over harvesting of the resources really knocked the feet from under the southern flounder population and was the beginning of the decline of the southern flounder in our waters.
A somewhat similar thing happened with the striped bass on the Roanoke River. At the very height of their population levels years ago both sport and commercial fishermen harvested them in excess and the population bottomed to the extent that the striped bass was actually considered for the endangered species list.
We seafood lovers also have done our part to bring about a population decline in the red drum all across the U.S. thanks to the publicity certain Louisiana chefs created for a dish called “blackened redfish.” Blackened redfish was so popular that the markets just couldn’t get enough of this game fish. The demand was high, the supply limited and the overall population of red drum went into a decline.
Fishery biologists began to see the need for some drastic measures to protect our ocean resources back in the early 1970s and both federal and state agencies began to cooperate in the management of our saltwater resources. New rules and regulations seemed to appear out of the woodwork much to the consternation of both sport and commercial fishermen. We had been used to the pretty much unrestricted taking of whatever we wanted from out waters and having all these new laws and regulations seemed to many to be unwarranted. We Americans aren’t exactly fond of laws that step on what we call our “individual rights.”
In defense of these restrictions on what we sometimes call our “individual rights” we find it difficult to not accept these restrictions when we see that they are having a positive effect on the resources we treasure so much.
To see the flounder that seems to be “coming back” is but one example of how good fishery management is paying off for both sport and commercial fishermen. Preliminary reporting on the sizes of flounder being caught this year look like a lot of these fish are on or above the current 15-inch size limit. In past years, the reports stated that so many of the flounder being taken were “just a little short of being legal.”
Both sport and commercial interest are starting to put a little faith in what our fishery managers have been telling us and advising us to do to help maintain healthy fish (and shellfish) populations along our coast. There always will be some degree of animosity between these two factions, but we’re beginning to see the advantages of working together for the common good of the resources.
It is encouraging!