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SC flounder are at historically low levels. Could new fishing rules save them?

Anglers may face new rules in South Carolina this summer when they go out to find flounder, an iconic fish that’s prized for its taste.

The proposed rules come as regulators scramble to reduce the catch after a study showed the population that shares the waters off four states has been crashing for a little over a decade. The General Assembly will have to pass the rules before they can take effect.

Flounder also face other potential pressures, like warmer ocean temperatures that may make more males develop. The fishery is dependent on female fish, which grow faster and are more likely to reach the size that can be harvested.

“A lot of folks here in South Carolina, depending on your age, have probably never seen a really quality flounder fishery,” said Matt Perkinson, the Saltwater Fishing Outreach Coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Perkinson commented during a recent DNR webinar explaining the new fishing limits.

New rules, and a season

Southern Flounder are the most ubiquitous species of the flatfish found along South Carolina’s waters. The voracious predator lurks in the transition between sand and mud, waiting for unsuspecting crabs and finfish. In warmer months they reside in the many estuaries and inlets along the coast, and in winter, they drift offshore to spawn.

But for three decades, flounder counts have been below the point where fisheries managers say they need to take action, a recent stock assessment of the fish from North Carolina to Georgia showed. The biggest decline was in roughly the past 10 years. The assessment used data up to 2017 and was completed in 2018.

Now, DNR officials say the catch needs to be reduced by slightly more than 70 percent. Not just South Carolina needs to act: Genetic testing and tagging has shown that southern flounder move freely from the Carolinas to Florida, urging the need for actions by all four states. North Carolina, which has a much bigger commercial flounder industry, passed new rules last year.

“As a regional stock, it requires a regional solution,” said Mel Bell, saltwater fisheries manager for DNR.

Now, the agency is proposing:

  • A flounder fishing season from July 1 through Oct. 31, where previously there was no season.
  • A daily maximum of 2 fish per person or 6 fish per boat, down from 10 per person or 20 per boat.
  • Size limits of at least 15 inches to keep a fish, the same as now.

The regulations would apply equally to those who catch flounder with a line and hook, and those who go gigging for the fish. Gigging involves searching shallow areas where flounder reside at night with bright lights shone into the water, and then spearing them with a “gig” — a piece of equipment with pronged hooks at the end.

Enforcement

Roger Lindenwald has operated a charter boat under the name Jolly Roger Fishing Adventures in Murrells Inlet for 13 years. In recent times, the Inlet has been one of the most productive areas for flounder in the state.

Lindenwald said it’s easy to find 10 of them a day with a rod and reel in the spring and summer, though many aren’t large enough to keep.

He mostly supports the proposed changes, and said it’s a good thing states are working together, which hasn’t always happened with fishing regulations in the past.

But the boat captain said the limit of two fish per person is too stringent. “If they’re not flounder fishing, people are going to focus on all the other fish” and pressure other species, Lindenwald said.

There’s also a question of whether DNR will be able to adequately enforce the regulations, since gigging happens at night. Lindenwald said he’s already heard others in the Inlet brag about picking up more fish than current limits, and his customers often reel in flounder with gig marks on them.

Bell said DNR has flown the coast at night to get a sense of how many people go gigging, and that having a season may make things easier since in the off season any amount of flounder in an angler’s cooler would be a violation.

But he admitted, “It’s a challenging fishery because (a lot of activity) is at night. People can get around and do things in the dark a little easier than in the day.”

Other stresses

Some anglers have wondered whether other issues are causing a decline in the flounder population, like habitat disturbance or pollution. Addressing the question in a recent webinar, DNR officials admit it’s possible, but argue their only tool to protect the species is to cut back on how many fish are harvested.

While some species can be grown in a hatchery and stocked, southern flounder don’t take well to that process, Bell said.

“When it comes down to what can regulations do to help, the fishing mortality is the only thing we can touch,” he said.

One of the biggest threats to flounder in the future could be rising temperatures from climate change.

John Godwin, who runs a lab at North Carolina State University, was one of several researchers who conducted studies on how temperatures affect the gender ratio of flounder. That’s important to the fishery because male flounder may never grow large enough to keep.

“When you see the smiling person with a big flounder on the cover of the fishing magazine, that’s a female,” Godwin said.

One study of fish caught off North Carolina showed more males in the warmer south end of the state’s coast, and more females in the north.

What’s less clear is how southern flounder and other species will adapt to these changes while they speed up, Godwin said.

“One of the things we see on both land and in the ocean is this northward shift (of species) as things warm up,” Godwin said. With flounder and other animals, “the experiments are in progress.”

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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