In 2013, commercial fishermen in North Carolina’s waters will only be able to harvest 2.88 million pounds, an 8% decrease in the catch totals for 2012. As a seafood lover, I find this recent news of the reduction in the state’s flounder quota hard to swallow.
Who will this help? The flounder, for sure, as more of them will be able to breed and grow and develop into mature fish ready for the next year. Who will it hurt? Commercial fishermen, for one. Restaurants, for two. Fishmongers, that’s three. And us, the consumers.
The new quota takes effect on January 1 and is another hurdle in a long line of regulations that those who are a part of the state’s commercial fishing fleet must contend with as they continue a traditional Tar Heel livelihood.
Up until the spring of 2013, I was ignorant of the number of obstacles that stand in the way of commercial fishermen. While standing on the dock at the Wanchese Fish Company with Micah Daniels, a third-generation restaurateur in this fishing/seafood restaurant family, she told me a bit about what her company and the fishermen up and down the coast face. There are restrictions on the size, type and number of fish and shellfish you can harvest, regulations on when you can harvest, and other environmental regulations that may seem like a good idea, but in reality threaten the entire industry.
Case in point: the dredging of Oregon Inlet. As it stands, the inlet is shallow – very shallow – almost too shallow to allow the boats from the fishing fleets at Wanchese and Manteo to pass even at high tide. Inlets fill over time as the natural flow of sand and sediment gathers, but when Hurricane Sandy tore through town in 2012, the inlet was rapidly filled. The spate of environmental regulations that popped up post-Sandy took some large and bold steps to ensure the integrity of barrier island and limit growth and development on these precious shorelines (largely along the truly ravaged New Jersey shore), but some regulations were poorly thought out or didn’t include necessary “Grandfather” clauses. Because of these regulations, dredging Oregon Inlet to a depth that would allow larger commercial fishing boats to pass unobstructed is virtually impossible. In a world where overfishing is a reality and economies are struggling to maintain balance, how can you hamstring an industry with poorly thought out regulations?
The flounder regulations stir up similar sentiments in everyone along the supply chain, from commercial fishermen to chefs who cook their catch. As I said, the reduced gross catch weight limits will certainly make for more flounder in the breeding population, ensuring, somewhat, the longevity and health of the species, but these limitations are difficult for many to swallow.
Take my favorite restaurant as an example. At Brasserie du Soleil, Chef Tripp Engle makes their most popular dish, flounder in brown butter sauce, hundreds of times a week – and that’s in the off-season. It’s a fantastic dish (which I guess I’d better get while I can) and I’ve seen people willing to leave the restaurant when it’s not available. That’s money lost for the restaurant and the fishermen.
Look further south to the town of Calabash, a place built on their legendary fried seafood. Here they have a difficult time keeping up with demand on things like shrimp and scallops; adding flounder to this dwindling supply will hurt these mom-and-pop restaurants as well as the shrinking fishing fleet there.
Lastly, turn your attention back to Wanchese and the Outer Banks. Micah Daniels is part of a family that has flourished thanks to the fishing industry. Without a ready supply of flounder, their restaurant, Fisherman’s Wharf, will face the same choices other restaurants face: make customers angry by removing flounder from the menu to some degree, increasing the price, substituting the fish with something else, or, worse yet, importing flounder from elsewhere, thereby supporting a foreign fishing market and hurting the guys who fish right off of their local shores.
Can we still head to the beach and surf fish or gig our own flounder? Yes, the new regulations focus on the commercial catch, so you and I are safe. However, while there’s something I love about catching flounder, cleaning it and cooking it myself, there’s also something I love about sitting down at a restaurant, drinking a beer or a glass of wine and enjoying some perfectly fried flounder.