Frequently Asked Questions about Southern Flounder Management The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries has adjusted the recreational and commercial flounder seasons for 2021 to ensure a sustainable fishery and rebuild the southern flounder stock. Read the Division's answers to frequently asked questions about the Southern Flounder fishery here. View the Division's Information on Southern Flounder Amendment 3 page What are the 2021 recreational southern flounder harvest season dates and regulations? The 2021 recreational flounder season will open at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 1 and close at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14 in internal and ocean waters of North Carolina. The minimum size limit will remain at 15 inches total length, and the creel limit will remain at four fish per person per day during the open recreational season. Since all species of flounder are managed under the same recreational regulations, the recreational season applies to all recreational flounder fishing. See Recreational Flounder Season Proclamation What are the 2021 commercial southern flounder harvest seasons and regulations? The commercial southern flounder harvest seasons will open on the following schedule: Northern Area (waters north of Pamlico Sound) – Sept. 15 to Oct. 1; Central Area (Pamlico Sound and its tributaries) – Oct. 1 to Oct. 19; Southern Area (waters from Core Sound to the South Carolina line) – Oct. 1 to Oct. 21. The minimum size limit will remain at 15 inches total length. The minimum gill net mesh size remains 6.0 inches stretch mesh, and pound net escape panel minimum mesh size remains 5.75 inches stretch mesh. All additional measures approved under Amendment 2 will remain in place (i.e., yardage limits and soak times for gill nets). All commercial gears that target southern flounder, such as large mesh gill nets, and flounder pound nets, must be removed from the water when the season is closed (or made inoperable in the case of flounder pound nets). The catfish and shad fisheries, which use large mesh gill nets, will be allowed in areas where interactions with southern flounder are unlikely. See Commercial Southern Flounder Season Proclamation Why are the seasons shorter than last year? Flounder harvest overages occurred in 2019 and 2020 resulting in the season adjustments for both the commercial and recreational sectors. This seasonal adjustment is in accordance with the seasonal flexibility provided to the Division of Marine Fisheries director in the Aug. 2019 Marine Fisheries Commission motion approving the adoption of Amendment 2. The 2021 seasons are expected to meet the management goal approved under Amendment 2 of the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan. Seasonal management of the flounder fishery was adopted under Amendment 2 and will remain in place until adoption of Amendment 3. What reductions in southern flounder harvest were approved by the Marine Fisheries Commission in Amendment 2? The Marine Fisheries Commission adopted the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 2, approving a southern flounder harvest reduction of 62% in 2019 and 72% beginning in 2020 for both the recreational and commercial fisheries. Why are harvest reductions needed? The 2019 South Atlantic Southern Flounder Stock Assessment found that southern flounder is overfished and overfishing is occurring throughout the region (North Carolina through the eastern coast of Florida). Overfished means the population is too small. Overfishing means the removal rate is too high. North Carolina law mandates that fishery management plans include measures to end overfishing within two years of adoption and rebuild the stock to achieve sustainable harvest within 10 years of adoption of a fishery management plan. Division of Marine Fisheries Staff developed and the Marine Fisheries Commission approved harvest reductions necessary to meet the legally mandated rebuilding timeline to achieve a sustainable fishery. Overfished and Overfishing tables Figure 1 below shows that the spawning stock biomass (SSB) does not meet the 4,000 metric ton threshold, which is the lowest level that it needs to meet to be considered rebuilt. The dotted lines (2SD) indicate the uncertainty about the estimates (standard deviation). The Fishery Management Plan strives to achieve the target level to increase the likelihood of rebuilding the stock to end the overfished status within 10 years. Figure 1. Estimated spawning stock biomass compared to established reference points, 1989–2017. (Source: Flowers et al. 2019). Figure 2 below shows that the rate of fishing removals from the stock (F) is higher than the threshold, which is the highest rate of removals the stock can withstand. The dotted lines (2SD) indicate the uncertainty about the estimates (standard deviation). The Fishery Management Plan strives to achieve the target level of fishing removals to increase the likelihood of ending overfishing within two years. Figure 2. Estimated fishing mortality rates (numbers-weighted, ages 2–4) compared to established reference points, 1989–2017. (Source: Flowers et al. 2019). How long will these regulations stay in place? Management measures currently in place under Amendment 2 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan will remain in place until adoption and implementation of Amendment 3 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan. Amendment 3 may be considered for adoption by the Marine Fisheries Commission in 2022. Implementation would depend on when Amendment 3 is adopted. How will Amendment 3 be different? Amendment 3 will examine more robust management strategies, such as quotas, slot limits, size limit changes, gear changes, and species-specific management for the recreational fishery. What is the timeline for Amendment 3? Review of draft Amendment 3 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan is scheduled to occur at the November 2021 business meeting of the Marine Fisheries Commission. At that time the commission will vote on sending the draft Amendment 3 out for public and advisory committee review and comment. Final adoption and implementation of management through Amendment 3 is expected to occur in 2022. What are the sector harvest allocations for Amendment 3? The Marine Fisheries Commission voted in March 2021 to amend the previously adopted sector allocations for Amendment 3 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan to gradually equalize allocations between the commercial and recreational fisheries. In February 2021, the commission had selected sector harvest allocations of 70% commercial and 30% recreational for the duration of Amendment 3. That allocation was similar to the harvest landed by each sector in 2017, the terminal year of the stock assessment on which draft management measures in Amendment 3 are based. In March 2021, the commission voted to change the allocation to 70% commercial and 30% recreational in 2021 and 2022, 60% commercial and 40% recreational in 2023, and 50% commercial and 50% recreational in 2024. Is the recreational season still open for other species of flounder during the southern flounder closure? In North Carolina, southern flounder are managed by Amendment 2 to the N.C. Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan. However, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Addendum XXVIII (2017) to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan impacts southern flounder recreational fishing regulations because the flounder species are combined in North Carolina management. Currently the recreational season closure applies to all flounder fishing in the ocean, sounds, and coastal rivers. Species specific management options are being considered under Amendment 3 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan. Any species-specific management measures adopted by North Carolina must also be approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission because they will impact summer flounder. Why is the commercial fishery allowed to catch flounder in the ocean when the southern flounder season is closed? Summer flounder is managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. The North Carolina commercial ocean trawl fishery typically occurs in waters off New Jersey and New York, outside of the southern flounder range. The summer flounder catch is then transported back to North Carolina to offload using North Carolina’s commercial summer flounder quota. Very few flounder are caught in trawls off North Carolina’s coast and the trawl fishery flounder landings are almost exclusively summer flounder. North Carolina’s recreational ocean flounder harvest occurs in North Carolina waters, where summer flounder, southern flounder, and Gulf flounder mix. Division of Marine Fisheries sampling data indicate that a significant portion of North Carolina’s ocean recreational flounder catch is southern flounder. Why can’t North Carolina recreational fishermen catch summer flounder and Gulf flounder in the ocean outside of the southern flounder season? In order for North Carolina to allow recreational harvest of summer flounder and Gulf flounder, while still protecting southern flounder, the Division of Marine Fisheries must determine if recreational fishermen can correctly identify the different species of flounder. Unintended recreational discards or harvest of southern flounder outside the fall seasons may drastically impact future southern flounder seasons and the recovery of the stock. The Division of Marine Fisheries is working on the Catch-U-Later App that not only will help identify the species of flounder that anglers catch and throw back, but also help determine if anglers can tell the difference between the species of flounder they catch. Additionally, as the Division of Marine Fisheries develops Draft Amendment 3 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan, it is exploring the idea of allowing recreational harvest of ocellated (summer and Gulf) flounder outside of the fall southern flounder fishery. View the division's brochure on how to identify North Carolina's three species of flounder Can I still catch and release flounder? Yes, but to encourage conservation, the N.C. Saltwater Fishing Tournament (Citation Program) will not issue citations for flounder during the recreational season closure. Based on the best available science, the Division of Marine Fisheries estimates a 9% discard mortality rate in the recreational southern flounder hook and line fishery, so any catch and release fishing can still have a negative impact on the recovery of the stock. How can Recreational Fishermen be impacting the southern flounder stock to any great extent? Recreational fishermen take approximately 2.1 million fishing trips that target or catch flounder every year. While individual fishermen may not harvest many fish per trip, once this number is multiplied by the number of trips taken each year the harvest adds up quickly. During the six-week 2020 flounder season, recreational fishermen removed 456,636 pounds of southern flounder. This number is primarily harvest, but also includes the fish that die after being released. This was well over the approved allowable removals of 152,808 pounds. How do you know what recreational fishermen catch? The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ Coastal Angling Program, in collaboration with the federal Marine Recreational Information Program, surveys Coastal Recreational Fishing License holders throughout the year by mail, telephone, and online. Recreational fishermen are also interviewed at boat ramps, beaches, and piers. These surveys ask for information such as where an angler fished, how many fish they caught, what type of gear they used, and how many fish they threw back. This data is used to produce estimates of recreational harvest. Will other states included in the stock assessment follow North Carolina’s lead and adopt more restrictive southern flounder regulations? North Carolina fisheries officials have met with fisheries authorities in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida regarding implementation of more restrictive management measures in these states. The state of Florida implemented additional regulations on their commercial and recreational flounder fisheries that took effect in March 2021. South Carolina increased the size limit and lowered the bag limit on flounder effective July 1, 2021. South Carolina also established a funding source for a state flounder stocking program. Regardless of what other states do, North Carolina’s combined commercial and recreational harvest of southern flounder makes up 57% of the total removals, so it is likely that any successful management strategy implemented by North Carolina will help the overall stock. Figure 3. Average contribution to U.S. South Atlantic coast southern flounder commercial and recreational removals (observed harvest and dead discards) in pounds by state, 2008-2017. (Source: NOAA Fisheries Annual Commercial Landing Statistics, North Carolina Trip Ticket Program and the Marine Recreational Information Program). Why are you shortening the flounder season instead of addressing shrimp trawl bycatch? The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries recognizes that finfish bycatch in the shrimp trawl fishery is an issue in North Carolina and is developing Amendment 2 to the Shrimp Fishery Management Plan to further reduce bycatch of non-target species and minimize ecosystem impacts. Draft Amendment 2 to the Shrimp Fishery Management Plan includes a shrimp trawl area closure issue paper using “hot spot” analysis of species of concern, including southern flounder. Shrimp trawl bycatch estimates were included in the coastwide southern flounder stock assessment. Why doesn’t North Carolina increase the flounder size limit instead of shortening the season? This is not an option under current Amendment 2 management. The Draft Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 3 includes options for changes in size limits, including slot limits. The Marine Fisheries Commission is scheduled to review this draft amendment as early as November 2021 to approve it for public comment. Why did the Division of Marine Fisheries wait until June to announce the adjusted 2021 season? The coastwide recreational catch estimates collected by the federal Marine Recreational Information Program were delayed due to impacts of COVID-19, and they were not available to the Division of Marine Fisheries until mid-April 2021. After receiving the estimates, Division of Marine Fisheries staff analyzed overages in the landings and determined the need for season adjustment. Why did the Division of Marine Fisheries announce the recreational flounder season, and then change it? The Division of Marine Fisheries announced the recreational flounder season in March and noted in the news release that flounder regulations may change, as the Division of Marine Fisheries anticipated adoption of the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 3 in August 2021. Amendment 3 will examine more robust management strategies, such as quotas, slot limits, size limit changes, gear changes, and species-specific management for the recreational fishery. The timeframe for Amendment 3 was later delayed, and the Division of Marine Fisheries reverted to addressing harvest overages from 2020 with the season flexibility allowed in Amendment 2.