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H.R. 1411 “Transparent Summer Flounder Quotas Act”

H.R. 1411 was introduced by Rep. Pallone, Frank, Jr. [D-NJ-6] on March 7, 2017. The text can be found here: “Transparent Summer Flounder Quotas Act”

In short, the bill seeks to suspend the 2017 summer flounder specifications – voted on by the Mid-Atlantic Council (MAFMC) and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in August of 2016 and approved by NOAA Fisheries in January – and doesn’t permit new specifications to be adopted until a new stock assessment is completed.

Background

Given that the summer flounder stock is trending downward, and getting dangerously close to the “overfished” threshold, 2017 specifications for summer flounder require a 30 percent reduction from 2016 harvest limits. Given an overage in recreational fishing in 2016, another 11 percent reduction was required to avoid overfishing, totaling 41 percent on the recreational side.

In February, the ASMFC Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Seabass Board voted for Option 5 in Addendum XXVIII, to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Seabass Fishery Management Plan (FMP).

Option 5, the “More Coastwide Consistency,” option offers a near coastwide one‐inch size limit increase and bag limit reduction to four fish. This option offers the longest seasons and what most consider to be an equitable and reasonable size and bag limit across the coast. Although this option does achieve an approximate 30 percent reduction based on the biological conclusion that there has been poor recruitment, it falls short of the 41 percent reduction that includes the overage. Thus it is still unclear whether NOAA Fisheries will approve it.

Reason for the bill

H.R. 1411 seeks to placate New Jersey constituents who claim to suffer undue economic harm as a result of 2017 recreational fishing measures.

It further seeks to confirm the assumption that high size limits result in focused mortality on fecund females, and that regulations that include high size limits may be the driving cause of poor recruitment.

New Jersey managers and vocal constituents believe a new stock assessment would show such a correlation, and allow for a liberalization of regulations.

We do not support this bill for the following reasons:

The best available science is clear on summer flounder abundance trends. The stock is unequivocally trending downwards, due to six years of unexplained poor recruitment (aka poor spawning success).

That trend has been detected in and confirmed by 13 unique fisheries-independent surveys conducted in states between Massachusetts and Virginia. And a lot of fishermen see it on the water. We don’t have the abundance of fish that we saw in previous years.

It is clear that the fish that we are harvesting aren’t being replaced at a rate that will maintain the stock at a healthy level.

The benchmark summer flounder assessment was released in 2013. It is updated annually. The last such update, released in June 2016, reflected the health of the stock at the end of 2015. Thus, New Jersey constituents’ claims that the assessment is outdated aren’t correct.

The latest update revealed that spawning stock biomass was just 58 percent of the target. Fishing mortality was about 26 percent higher than it needed to be to prevent a further decline.

Still, the stock is not yet “overfished.” It hasn’t yet fallen below the scientifically determined threshold that will trigger a new, legally-mandated rebuilding process, resulting in what will likely be much steeper restrictions on harvest than we are facing now.

According to the assessment update, the stock almost certainly will fall below that level if 2016 harvest levels are maintained. Yet this is exactly what H.R. 1411 is suggesting.

On the water perceptions

The last good recruitment occurred in 2009. Some anglers are still catching larger flounder that were spawned before 2010, generally while fishing in the ocean in 40-plus feet of water. And there are some places where flounder remain locally abundant, such as Eastern Long Island.

However, it’s not where the fish are but where they aren’t that’s important.

During a typical season, summer flounder will be available in a wide range of habitats. In recent years, the consensus amongst fishermen is that fishing has not been good in the bays and most of Long Island Sound, and spotty, at best, in the ocean. Fish are not in the spots they were just a few years ago, which has greatly reduced the general public’s access to the resource.

When a stock becomes depleted, it tends to concentrate in core areas of abundance. People who happen to fish in such core areas may believe that the stock is doing fine, simply because they had a relatively good season.

Let’s be clear… This is not the case.

All of the existing science tells us that, at current fishing levels, we are “overfishing” summer flounder. We are removing fish at a much higher rate than they can be replaced, forcing the stock into decline.

If we keep fishing at status quo, as the Pallone/LoBiondo bill would allow, it is very likely that the spawning stock biomass will fall below the threshold level, causing the stock to be designated “overfished” as early as the end of this year.

If, or when, that happens, we won’t be looking at a 30 percent reduction in fluke quota. Rebuilding could require reductions much, much greater, reductions that could be truly catastrophic to the recreational fishing industry.

Management measures for 2017 are not catastrophic

The regulations that were approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) early in February aren’t catastrophic, given that we really do need to significantly reduce removals if we want to avoid an “overfished” designation.

In the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region we’re going up an inch in size, from 18 to 19 inches, and reducing the bag limit from five fish to three.

Such new regulations are constraining, but don’t herald the end of the world. We will retain a full 128-day season, and thus anglers will still be able to fish, party boats will still be able to target summer flounder, and fluke tackle will still be sold.

The reductions proposed for 2017 are equitable, and provide the greatest amount of opportunity for ALL anglers, everywhere on the coast. Yes, there may be some economic impact, but given the status of the stock, and what’s at stake here, I’d go so far as to say they are very reasonable.

The Commission did what it was supposed to do. It implemented measures designed to get the stock back on track, while minimizing, to the extent it could, the economic impact to stakeholders.

New Jersey appears to be the only state adamantly opposed to such measures. Representatives of that state don’t believe in the science, don’t believe that there’s been poor recruitment and a significant decline in abundance, and don’t accept ANY conservation measures when to comes to summer flounder. However, representatives from the rest of the states do.

It is not good policy to continue overfishing and risk an “overfished” designation, which would require a rebuilding plan and likely much more restrictive measures imposed on every state, at the behest of one state.

New Assessment?

H.R. 1411 calls for a new benchmark stock assessment. NOAA Fisheries Science Center is considering preparing one for 2018, but it’s uncertain whether NOAA will prioritize it.

Opponents of summer flounder conservation currently suggest that incorporating a new model into the assessment, which considers the sex composition of recreational harvest, would allow an increase in harvest, and a liberalization of regulations.

They contend that high recreational size limits result in killing too many females, thus reduce the fecundity of the stock, and are the cause of the poor recruitment. There is no research to support that contention.

Commercial fishermen are allocated 60 percent of the harvest, and they may land 14” fish. At that minimum size, most of the fish harvested commercially would be male, and would serve as a counterbalance to the recreational harvest of female summer flounder.

Even if overall harvest is skewed toward large females, the majority of such females would be at least 18 or 19 inches long when landed, and so would have had a chance to spawn several times.

From a biological perspective, that’s likely better than harvesting smaller fish (presumably through a slot limit), a good percentage of which would still be females, who have had little chance to spawn. One could certainly make the case that killing younger females to include a larger percentage of males decreases the overall fecundity of the stock.

From an economic standpoint, one could also make the case that a slot limit will make it far easier for anglers to catch legal-sized fish, increase recreational landings, and thus force the imposition of a significantly shorter season to prevent overharvest. And as anyone in a fishing-related business will tell you, the longer the season, the more anglers will fish, and the better business will be.

To be clear, we support continually working to improve the science. However, in this case, there seems to be nothing to suggest that an expedited stock assessment would result in the liberalized regulations that the New Jersey angling community expects.

Thus, allowing overfishing to occur while we wait for such a stock assessment seems foolish.

On access

A healthy, abundant, rebuilt stock offers increased access to those fishing from small boats, from the beach, etc. Access isn’t limited to the narrow special interests that can and do have access to summer flounder when they are depleted and concentrated in deeper water.

H.R. 1411 was introduced by politicians who are listening to, and trying to represent, specific, vocal stakeholder groups who will benefit, in the short term, from what all of the science tells us is an unsustainable harvest level.

There are wide array of anglers who benefit from the continued precautionary management and future abundance and sustainability of the summer flounder stock. Short-term profit for a discrete part of the recreational fishing community, shouldn’t trump long-term sustainability the entirety of it.

Conclusion

It is true that the current recruitment problems can’t be tied to fishing. Why recruitment is down is still in question.

Regardless of the cause: If there are less fish around, we simply can’t keep fishing them at the same level as when there were a lot around, not if we want to give the summer flounder stock a chance to recover. And not if we want to have a robust fluke fishery in the future and increased access for the general public. That seems pretty obvious to us.

Undoubtedly, there is a part of the recreational fishing community that is upset about more restrictive summer flounder measures, and H.R. 1411 is a response to such concern.

We believe that such measures represent the way management is supposed to work. If the stock is trending downward and approaching an overfished state, fishing mortality is reduced until the stock can right itself. It may be painful in the short term, but it is responsible and forward thinking, and ultimately benefits the entire fishing public.

Doing nothing (aka status quo until we wait for some time-and-outcome-uncertain stock assessment), as H.R. 1411 suggests, just isn’t acceptable.

While we’re waiting, it’s more than likely the stock becomes “overfished,” and we’ll all be looking at what could very possibly be a 70 percent to 80 percent reduction down the road because we’d ultimately be fishing under a fishery management council-mandated rebuilding plan.

But even without such severe cutbacks, one simple fact remains: An overfished stock won’t allow either anglers or commercial fishermen to catch many fish. Not because of restrictive regulations, but because the fish just aren’t there. New England cod more than adequately illustrate that fact.

See Captain McMurray’s Testimony Before Congress on H.R. 1411 here: Legislative Hearing on H.R. 1411.

For more on summer flounder see:  http://fissues.org/summer-flounder-fluke/

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