Agencies’ Joint Rules Conflict Sets ‘Stage For A Showdown’

Second in a series investigating why, after years of consistent seasons for inland, joint and coastal waters, recreational anglers found themselves negotiating different flounder and mullet rules in 2023. Read part one.

Conflicting recreational flounder seasons this past September put a spotlight on a bitter rift between two separate agencies that manage state waters.

In the past, the Wildlife Resources Commission had a rule in place to line up its recreational flounder season and a handful of other species for inland and joint waters with those established by the Marine Fisheries Commission or Division of Marine Fisheries for joint and coastal fishing waters.

But that changed last year, despite the Division of Marine Fisheries’ objections.

The division’s public information officer Patricia Smith said that, prior to recent rule adoptions by the Wildlife Resources Commission, the inland fishing rule for spotted seatrout, flounder and red drum referred to the Marine Fisheries Commission rules for these marine fish species. 

Wildlife Resource’s “reference rule” said that for those species, “recreational seasons, size limits, and creel limits are the same as those established” by Marine Fisheries Commission rules or Division of Marine Fisheries proclamations “in adjacent joint or coastal fishing waters.” 

The amended rule that went into effect March 15, after several months delay due to legislative review requests by the public, now reads, “(a) The daily creel limit for flounder is four fish. (b) The minimum size limit is 15 inches. (c) The season for taking and possessing flounder is September 1 through September 14.” 

The division proclaimed in June that the season for coastal and joint waters for recreational flounder would be Sept. 15-30, with a limit of one fish per day, minimum 15 inches in size. 

“This rule was changed over the objection of the Marine Fisheries Commission, the Division of Marine Fisheries, and the Department of Environmental Quality. The result was contradictory regulation in the state of North Carolina for many marine and estuarine species of fish,” Smith said.

Wildlife Resources Inland Fisheries Division Chief Christian Waters explained to Coastal Review that the original intent of the “reference rule” was to efficiently implement consistent seasons, size limits and creel limits in the commission’s jurisdictional waters, which he said are inland fishing waters and hook and line in joint fishing waters. 

“When the ‘reference rule’ was established in 2011, DMF staff agreed to notify WRC, prior to the issuance of any proclamation to allow WRC opportunity to publicize the change to its constituents via news release, website, etc. Unfortunately, advance notice from DMF to WRC does not regularly occur, creating confusion to WRC staff (including Wildlife law enforcement) and the public,” Waters wrote in the email.

“As part of the Periodic Review of Rules, the WRC Board on December 9, 2021, initiated rulemaking which included removing the reference to MFC and DMF seasons, size limits, and creel limits for Flounder, Red Drum, Spotted Sea Trout, and Weakfish and reestablishing species-specific rules as in the past,” he said in an email. “The rule changes simply revert to WRC-specified season and limits promulgated in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act with the seasons and limits mimicking the current MFC and DMF seasons and limits.”

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