How to Protect North Carolina's Premier Coastal Crop?

Over the past two decades, flounder fishing has generated as much as five million dollars a year for the coastal fisherman of North Carolina. And yet, relatively little was known about the species, says Fred Scharf, professor of marine biology-including an accurate estimate of how many flounder are pulled from the region's waters. "We want it to be a productive fishery," he explains. "If we can have good data, it enables us to manage it much more effectively."

Without these numbers, there's a real risk of depleting the flounder population, thereby adding another endangered species to the list. "Historically, this has happened a lot," says Scharf. Fred Scharf

In 2005, Professor Scharf set out to learn more about the area's flounder population. With funding from the North Carolina Sea Grant and the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, and in collaboration with colleagues at NC State and UNC Chapel Hill, Scharf worked on a tagging project to determine both how many flounder were caught annually in North Carolina, and what percentage of the overall flounder population this compromised. Once the flounder were tagged, fishermen were encouraged "to catch them and return them to us," Scharf describes. "That gave us an idea of how many fish were being caught."

Additionally, Scharf gathered data concerning the flounder's "maturation" process, in hopes of establishing a more efficient harvesting cycle: catch the fish too soon, they won't be able to spawn; wait too long, and many will have already died from natural causes. In 2009-2010, Sharf's additional study revealed that flounder actually developed more slowly than first anticipated. The team recommended that the state adjust regulations to protect flounder from being harvested too soon. In time, the state actually raised the minimum measurements for what size fish can be removed from area waters.

More recently, Scharf's been studying issues of flounder migration and genetic diversity. His teams have included UNCW undergraduates and graduate students, including Lisa Hollensead, a current doctoral candidate in marine biology. Together, they're examining flounder all the way from the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, towards a more sophisticated understanding of North Carolina's flounder population and a responsible balance between fish health and fish harvesting.