Attention anglers: Today, Sept. 15, marks the official beginning of flounder fishing season. Unfortunately, the sport may not be as exciting this year as it has been in the past, because of an exceptionally restricted fishing season and strict quotas set by both the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) and the secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. Consequently, local communities that rely on the fishing industry may see economic downturns, and consumers will be forking out more for the popular fish.  

North Carolina’s wild-caught fishing industry is valued at $300 million and employs 5,500 North Carolinians, making it a vital source of revenue for coastal communities. Flounder, a flat fish with a light, mildly fishy taste that lives on the ocean floor, has long been a large contributor to the demand for wild-caught fish along the entire East Coast. According to the Marine Fisheries Commission, however, this highly demanded fish has seen dramatic declines in population over the past few years.  

The supposedly dwindling flounder population, attributed in part to overfishing according to the MFC, has elicited a range of responses from our officials, including the implementation of reduced fishing seasons and quotas for both recreational and commercial fishermen. While the overarching goal is to foster the recovery of the flounder population, which is said to require a substantial 72% reduction in fishing activity to stabilize, it’s worth questioning whether these measures might disproportionately affect small-scale fishers and exacerbate economic disparities. 

This flounder fishing season, anglers are facing a sharply abbreviated window of opportunity, spanning just two weeks (ending Sept. 29) — in stark contrast to previous years when the season extended for a full month. This reduction raises valid concerns about its economic implications for local businesses reliant on fishing tourism and seasonal trade, as well as the overall affordability of flounder for consumers. While the stated intention is to fortify the flounder population and ensure its long-term sustainability, we should approach such interventions with a degree of skepticism, considering their potential inadvertently to strain coastal communities economically. 

Furthermore, the 2023 flounder season maintains a strict, one-fish per person per day creel limit and a minimum size requirement of 15 inches. These restrictions cast a shadow over the once-vibrant angling culture that thrived along North Carolina’s coast. For some anglers, the prevailing sentiment is one of frustration as they navigate a landscape of shifting regulations and uncertain economic prospects. 

Anglers are even more upset and confused because the Wildlife Resource Commission (WRC) has decided to set its own rules for the inland waters they oversee. While the WRC allows recreational fisherman four flounder per day, anglers are scared to keep more than one because of jurisdictional confusion: some waters are overseen by the MFC, and some are by the WRC, and some are jointly overseen. 

Adding to the complexity, as the state grapples with declining flounder populations, it continues to push for the development of offshore wind farms. Flounder inhabit both shallow and deep waters, making it uncertain whether building in the ocean will further hinder their populations. Some may even find it suspicious that fishing is severely limited prior to construction.  

If there has been overfishing, who’s to blame? Recreational fishermen blame commercial fishermen, and vice-versa. But if the recreational fishermen say they aren’t doing it, and the commercial fishermen say they aren’t doing it, then who is? Our waters didn’t suddenly reach a point where we need a 72% reduction in flounder caught. It also seems unlikely that this drastic decline in flounder population is just now a problem. Why were limits not better enforced in the past if populations were declining?  

The emerging reality of flounder fishing, characterized by shorter seasons and tightened limits, prompts us to question how well state officials are managing the delicate balance between environmental conservation and the economic well-being of coastal communities. Furthermore, the conservation efforts may appear counterproductive in light of a government actively promoting the construction of wind turbines in the ocean. The outcome of this intricate balancing act will undoubtedly shape the narrative of North Carolina’s flounder fishing season, affecting not only the fishing industry itself but also the intricate tapestry of coastal economies and communities.