Frequently Asked Questions about Southern Flounder Management

The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission adopted the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 3 at its May 2022 meeting. Amendment 3 includes robust management strategies, such as commercial and recreational quotas, options for commercial trip limits, and a spring Gulf and summer flounder season for recreational hook and line in the ocean.

View the Division's Information on Southern Flounder Amendment 3 page

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The Marine Fisheries Commission maintained a southern flounder harvest reduction goal of 72% in Amendment 3. The reduction is more conservative than the minimum required to achieve sustainable harvest.

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).

Total Allowable Landings (TAL)

Establishes annual maximum fishing harvest limits (in pounds) for both the recreational and commercial fisheries. TAL is used to monitor the quota in season.

The commercial TAL is from North Carolina trip ticket landings. Landings, in pounds, are monitored daily within the flounder season.

The recreational TAL is calculated from the MRIP hook-and-line fishery estimates and the NCDMF Gig Mail Survey estimates.

Total Allowable Catch (TAC)

Equal to the TAL plus the fish that were discarded and assumed dead (dead discards). TAC is calculated at the end of the fishing year and equals all removals (harvest and dead discards) from the population.

The commercial TAC is equal to the commercial TAL plus calculated dead discards from the gill net fishery.

The recreational TAC is equal to the recreational TAL plus dead discards calculated from MRIP discards and NCDMF Gig Survey dead discards.

Total Allowable Landings + Dead Discards = Total Allowable Catch

The Marine Fisheries Commission approved sector harvest allocations of 70% commercial and 30% recreational for 2022, through 2024, 60% commercial and 40% recreational starting in 2025, and 50% commercial and 50% recreational 2026 and beyond.

The commercial fishery for flounder in the ocean is a trawl-based fishery that targets summer flounder which is managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC Summer Flounder). The summer flounder stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. The commercial ocean trawl fishery typically occurs in waters off New Jersey through southern New England, outside of the southern flounder range. The summer flounder catch is 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. Flounder landings from the commercial ocean trawl fishery are almost exclusively summer flounder; this is based off fish house sampling data where NCDMF biologists determine the ID of the flounder sampled.

North Carolina’s recreational ocean flounder harvest occurs in North Carolina waters, where summer flounder, southern flounder, and Gulf flounder mix. Species ratios for flounder from the ocean recreational fishery can vary across the state and seasonally. Division of Marine Fisheries sampling data indicate that on average up to 50% of North Carolina’s ocean recreational flounder harvest is southern flounder.

Amendment 3 to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan includes a provision for a March 1 to April 15 recreational Gulf and summer flounder season for hook-and-line in the ocean which could happen as early as 2023. Any southern flounder landings and discards from this season will impact the August-September recreational flounder season. Additionally, the early recreational ocellated season may not occur in order to prevent exceeding the TAL for the recreational southern flounder fishery.

The Division of Marine Fisheries discourages anglers from targeting flounder for catch and release. The division estimates a 9% discard mortality rate in the recreational southern flounder hook-and-line fishery, so any catch-and-release fishing can have a negative impact on the recovery of the stock. Estimates of dead discards count towards the recreational Total Allowable Catch. Targeting flounder outside of the season reduces the volume of available harvest during the season so this activity may impact the length of future seasons.

The N.C. Saltwater Fishing Tournament (Citation Program) will not issue citations for flounder during the recreational season closure.

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 one month-long 2022 flounder season, recreational fishermen removed 226,995 pounds of southern flounder. This number is primarily harvest, but also includes the fish that die after being released. This was over the approved allowable removals of 170,655 pounds.

Recreational Hook and Line Southern Flounder Catch
  Numbers Weight (pounds)
Year Landed Released Landed
2013 374,215 2,357,529 869,223
2014 209,228 1,856,280 447,337
2015 249,166 1,709,189 558,303
2016 299,273 2,178,145 695,713
2017 221,321 1,988,000 451,126
2018 217,805 1,002,753 495,289
2019* 163,045 1,353,286 387,203
2020* 152,244 1,678,494 398,769
2021* 266,421 1,940,051 560,440
2022* 70,945 2,792,144 166,102
Average 222,366 1,885,587 502,951
*seasonal flounder fishery closure in effect

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.

To determine if the TAC has been met or exceeded the annual recreational landings and dead discards are combined and compared to the TAC established in Amendment 3. The following is an example of calculating the recreational TAC to determine the total removals in 2022. For a visual representation of the process described below, please see the flounder landings presentation given at the Feb. 2023 MFC quarterly business meeting.

The hook-and-line southern flounder landings from MRIP were 166,102 pounds. The landings from the gig survey were 3,422 fish (or 7,871 pounds). The gig survey provides numbers of fish which must be converted to pounds, by multiplying the number of fish landed by an average weight of 2.3 pounds. This conversion factor was calculated as part of the most recent stock assessment process. The 2022 combined recreational landings were 173,973 pounds.

To determine the hook-and-line dead discards:

The value for all flounder discards determined by MRIP is 3,200,046 fish. An annual species ratio from the observed catch of southern, summer, and Gulf flounder is applied to the total number of flounder discards (3,296,354 fish). For 2022, the number of total discards considered southern flounder is 2,792,144 fish. To determine the weight of the discards, the number of fish is multiplied by 0.21 pounds, resulting in 586,350 pounds of discarded southern flounder. This conversion factor weight was derived from South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCNDR) tagging data and used in the stock assessment and recent amendments. Further explanation of the ratio method and the SCDNR tagging can be found in Section 2.1.4 of the stock assessment.

The weight of the southern flounder discards is multiplied by the discard mortality rate of 9% to determine weight of the dead discards. The 2022 hook-and-line dead discards were 52,772 pounds.

To determine the gig discards:

The value for all flounder discards from the gig survey was 109 fish. The average weight of the fish discarded by the gig fishery is 2.3 pounds, and there is a discard mortality rate of 100%. The 2022 gig discards were 251 pounds.

To determine total landings and catch:

Values described above are added together to determine recreational TAL and TAC. For 2022 in the recreational fishery, as of June 28, 2022:

2022 Recreational TAL = 159,706 pounds
Estimated 2022 Landings : 166,102 + 7,871 = 173,973 pounds

2022 Recreational TAC = 170,655 pounds
Estimated 2022 Total Catch : 173,973 + 52,772 + 251= 226,995 pounds

Total Overage: 56,340 pounds

The state of Florida implemented additional regulations on their commercial and recreational flounder fisheries 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. All states are working together to address research needs.

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 a successful management strategy implemented by North Carolina will help the overall stock.