Managing North Carolina's Coastal Fisheries

Author: Trish Murphey, APNEP Watershed Manager

In contrast to livestock or agricultural crops, North Carolina’s coastal fish, shellfish, and crustaceans are considered public trust resources, meaning that they belong to all the people of the state. To ensure that these resources will continue to provide jobs and delicious seafood far into the future, a balance must be struck between harvesting by commercial and recreational fishermen and protections that allow these species to grow into adulthood and reproduce – no easy feat in a system as complicated as our estuaries and coasts. It is the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) who is responsible for managing, protecting, preserving, and enhancing these marine and estuarine resources. This means they are responsible for adopting rules, implementing management strategies and providing policies for the state’s fisheries. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) supports these responsibilities through fisheries management, habitat enhancement, law enforcement, research, and statistical and licensing programs. 
In North Carolina, the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997 requires the DMF to prepare Fishery Management Plans (FMPs) for all recreationally and commercially significant species that make up North Carolina’s marine and estuarine resources. These “significant species” include spotted seatrout, striped mullet, and kingfish. The ultimate goal of these plans is to ensure the long term sustainability of these fisheries for the citizens of North Carolina. 

A FMP is an all-inclusive document that provides information such as:

  • species life history
  • fishery information (history, landings, gears, seasons)
  • socioeconomic information (income, demographics)
  • environmental factors

Each FMP also considers issues such as:

  • protected species impacts
  • aquaculture
  • user conflict
  • bycatch concerns
  • research needs

FMPs are the primary tool that the Marine Fisheries Commission uses to determine the strategies and rules they’ll use to manage a fishery, such as size limits, seasons, or gear requirements. The DMF then is responsible for carrying out those rules and management strategies. In many ways, an FMP is similar to APNEP’s Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP). Both require scientific information and citizen involvement to develop goals and supporting strategies to meet those goals.   Species within the APNEP region that have FMPs include red drum, oysters, river herring, and shrimp.   APNEP species whose FMPs are currently being amended include the estuarine striped bass, blue crab and the southern flounder.
To create an FMP, the first step is a stock assessment, which is and evaluation of the size of the fish population. Stock assessments determine if current management strategies are adequate or if changes in management are required to sustain the population.    This assessment is used to determine if too much fishing is happening or in fishery terms, if overfishing is occurring. If overfishing continues then population size may be reduced and become overfished. It is this scientific evaluation that determines if changes are needed. 

The DMF will work with an advisory committee (AC) made up of stakeholders, to propose and consider management options to achieve the goal of restoring or maintaining a sustainable fishery. This committee discusses strategies such as size limits, catch limits, fishing seasons, and gear modifications. The AC can also give input and advice on other issues encountered in a fishery, such as user conflict or economic considerations, and provide advice on any potential impacts to industry and recreation. 
This FMP development process doesn’t happen overnight. It can take two years or more to develop an FMP and any rules that might result from it. Each management issue is thoroughly examined, the pros and cons of different options are weighed, and input is gathered from DMF staff, the AC, and from public comments. 
The Marine Fisheries Commission will review the draft plan, consider recommendations from the DMF and the AC, and extensive public review by regional and standing advisory committees, and all other public input before selecting what they feel are the preferred actions to take based on that plan, known as management strategies. The Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality and the Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources then review the draft further, and the FMP afterwards comes back to the Marine Fisheries Commission for the final selection of management strategies and proposed rules. Once rules have also been approved (through a separate public process), the MFC can finally adopt the Fishery Management Plan and the DMF can begin taking action to implement the Plan’s rules and strategies.  
Find out more about becoming a part of the fishery management process. Go to for more information and to apply to participate on an advisory committee.

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