The science on summer flounder is quite clear that the stock has been in decline for several years, primarily because it has suffered 6 years of poor recruitment (poor spawning success).
Because the number of fish are trending downward at the current rate of removals, just about all of the available science indicates that we are “overfishing” (removing fish from the population at a rate they cannot replace themselves) and the stock is dangerously close to being “overfished” (below a spawning stock biomass threshold that would require a rebuilding program).
Thus, scientists have recommended a 30% reduction, plus another 10% to account for a recreational harvest limit overage that occurred in 2016.
Without any cuts, at 2016 fishing rates, scientists have indicated that we would almost certainly reach the overfishing threshold as early as this year. If that were to happen, the reductions would be far greater for 2018 than what we are looking at now.
It’s important to note here that the cuts recommended by scientists are not only a good idea if you are looking anywhere past next year; because they are managed by the feds, such cutbacks are not discretionary, they are a requirement. Try as they might, state managers can’t dodge that responsibility. If they did the Feds would either mandate a precautionary management measure or shut fishing down in federal waters.
To account for the necessary reduction, back in August ASMFC voted for Summer Flounder Option 5, “More Coastwide Consistency,” contained in Addendum XXVIII to the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan.
That option offers a coastwide one‐inch size limit increase and a max bag limit of four fish. While certainly some states were critical of this option, in the end, it had broad support, because it was the “fairest” of them all, and the only option that offered the longest seasons and what we believe are reasonable size and bag limits along the coast.
For state-by-state regulations under Option 5, please see graphic to the left.
It is important to note here that, although this option does achieve an approximate 30% reduction, it falls short of the 41% reduction required to prevent overfishing, thus there was some uncertainty that NOAA would accept it.
Option 5 supports the biological conclusion that the stock had experienced 6 years of poor spawning success (aka poor “recruitment”) and that a 30% reduction was needed to account for that, yet it didn’t address a recreational harvest limit overage that had theoretically taken place in 2016.
That said, there is a great deal of uncertainly with the catch estimates amongst managers and stakeholders, and there are some recent retrospective issues with the recreational survey that may negate the 10% anyway.
Still, it was questionable whether or not Option 5 would be acceptable to NOAA Fisheries.
Thankfully, today, NOAA found the ASMFC Option 5 proposal acceptable. We believe that this is a good thing.
Yet, as readers likely know, there’s been lots of controversy here. Because a lot of people don’t want to make those cutbacks.
There has been a lot of pressure (mostly from New Jersey) to ignore the science, keep fishing at status quo and subsequently get into a lot of trouble.… and we do understand why. Constraining regulations undoubtedly impact businesses that rely on PUBLIC resources. And fishing-dependent businesses have bills to pay, and they need to keep their heads above water.
But let’s be clear about what we’re talking about here.
No one is suggesting ending fluke fishing. The regulations in Option 5 aren’t, in our opinion, punitive, given we really do need to make a significant reduction in removals if we want a sustainable fishery.
In the NY, NJ and CT region we’re going up an inch in size and losing two fish off the bag limit. In other words, we’re going from 18” to 19” and from five fish to three. (A quick note here: we aren’t aware of any science that indicates that increasing mortality on larger older females significantly reduces fecundity of the stock as some relentlessly suggest… remember these fish have spawned a few times before we bag them).
Yet, what’s more important than the size and bag limit is keeping the seasons in-tact, so that anglers still have the opportunity to fish.
Yes, the regulations contained in Option 5 are constraining, but we don’t believe they are the end of the world. Given the status of the stock, and what’s at stake here, we’d go so far as to say they’re very reasonable.
So where we’ve ended up here isn’t a terrible place. We are making the needed reductions without catastrophic measures.
ASMFC and ultimately NOAA Fisheries had to reach a compromise where significant reductions were made, while minimizing, to the extent it could, the economic impact to stakeholders.
And that is the way things should work. It’s the way things HAVE to work if we want sustainable fisheries.
Note: For a full background on summer flounder please see a species description and update here.