A sizable cut to summer flounder catch limits will affect the state’s commercial fishermen next year, but it could also impact area restaurants — and diners — accustomed to a steady supply of fresh, local flounder throughout the year.
“It’s our top-selling item, and has been since we opened eight years ago,” said Tripp Engel, chef at Brasserie du Soleil in Wilmington. “I’ve had instances where I haven’t been able to get flounder to the quality I would like, so I substitute another fish, and people would get up and walk out because we didn’t have flounder. It could definitely affect us.”
The new commercial quota, which will take effect Jan. 1, is 10.51 million pounds, nearly a million pounds less than this year’s quota of 11.44 million pounds. The quota is a coastal limit, meaning that Atlantic states from North Carolina to Massachusetts are allocated a percentage of the total. North Carolina has the largest piece of the pie at 27.44 percent, or 2.88 million pounds — an 8 percent decrease from the current allowance of 3.14 million pounds.
It’s a hefty dip, though less drastic than it may seem, as the quota had increased in recent years after being slashed in the 1990s to protect fish populations, said Tom Wadsworth, a biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
“They had reduced the quota, and it’s gradually going back up. As the quota increases, more fish are caught. It’s not surprising that we would see a need to lower the quota back down to let the stock replenish,” he said. “Right now we think we have a pretty healthy fishery, so we want to keep it that way.”
Most commercial fishermen catching summer flounder operate trawl ships offshore to catch fish in larger quantities. As flounder populations have moved farther north, so has the fishery. Last year, North Carolina trawlers caught much of their haul across state lines. In 2013, North Carolina compensated for that move by transferring a portion of its catch quota to other states, said Chris Batsavage, protected resources section chief for the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
“North Carolina’s quota share at the beginning of 2013 was approximately 3.14 million pounds,” he said via email. “However, that decreased due to quota transfers to other states that were necessary to cover the landings of summer flounder in those states due to severe shoaling of Oregon Inlet, mechanical breakdowns and severe weather.”
Next year’s reduced quota may affect the quantity of fish funneling into processing houses and restaurants, but it’s unlikely to dry up the supply completely. In addition to flounder from trawls, local restaurants can also buy their fish from inshore anglers - but that tends to be more expensive, said Sam Romano, co-owner of Seaview Crab Company in Wilmington.
“They’ll be able to get flounder. The only problem is pricing,” he said. “The flounder that are caught in trawl nets, the quality is a little lower because they get beat up a little bit, so we can put specials on that. When availability drops, the price change between that and the inshore fishery flounder is pretty drastic.”