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Just when you thought fluke were going strong, significant new reductions are suddenly on the horizon.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.
Tags: inshore, offshore, fisheries management

Things have gotten pretty hot the past few weeks with summer flounder (fluke), with word of a possible 43% quota reduction for 2016 sending shockwaves across the region. While individual anglers and many of those in the regional tackle and for-hire industry can’t fathom how such a drastic reduction on a rebuilt, healthy stock like summer flounder is at all possible, the government statistics folks seem fairly adamant.

In response to this grim forecast, managers, scientists and fishing advocates have been meeting regularly on the subject in an effort to stave off any dire cutbacks. The latest word from management circles is something more in the neighborhood of a 23% reduction in harvest for both sectors (commercial and recreational) starting in 2016. While a 23% loss is far better than 43%, annual reductions are adding up for fluke fishermen along the Atlantic Coast, with angler access sharply reduced and the plight of our local industry once again in the spotlight.

There’s a log of technical jargon associated with the proposed reduction, and a veritable bucketful of acronyms (ABC, ACL, CV, OFL, among others) to contend with. In a nutshell, the science and statistical committee which owns the data from trawl surveys, harvest sampling and numerical models for calculating stock status has reported that the overall spawning stock biomass of fluke (those fish which produce offspring), and the recruitment numbers (the actual offspring, or young fluke born each year) are both lower than they should be.

And while anglers may be finding a lot of throwbacks on the fluke grounds this season, certain factors are contributing to lower than anticipated numbers of both broodstock and brood. That means we are forced by law to take a reduction in allowable harvest starting in 2016.

From August 11-13 at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) will meet with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in New York City. A Council memo dated July 9, 2015 highlighted a recommendation to cut the 2016 summer flounder harvest for both recreational and commercial fishermen by 43%. The Council staff noted in a follow-up memo dated July 17th that “a reduction of this magnitude has severe economic implications for commercial and recreational fishing businesses, the seafood industry and markets, and fishing communities they support.”

Earlier this week, the science and statistical committee met again to look at options, essentially determining that a phased approach to reducing both recreational and commercial harvest would be allowable. That means that the Council and ASMFC will take a vote in August on the least onerous reduction in harvest starting with the 2016 season. While the problem with the breeding and recruitment numbers for fluke have little to do with what fishermen are harvesting (scientists say environmental factors are creating the problem, things like water quality, migration shift, even natural mortality from other predators), the fact remains that the problems will ultimately result in cutbacks on harvest.

So what would a 23% reduction as an example mean for 2016? First of all, the commercial fishermen will be allowed 23% fewer pounds of fish to be brought to market. It’s important to remember that, because even with the 60% share of annual quota (recreational anglers get the other 40%), both sides will take equal reductions. In terms of what anglers are allowed next season, the Council will ultimately have to vote on whether or not to allow the ‘regional’ approach to management to continue, and then on an option for (A) a higher size limit, (B) lower individual bag limits, (C) a shorter season, or (D) a combination of all of the above.

Decades of fisheries management dictate that a reduction in bag limit doesn’t mean a hill of beans in terms of the management model. An increase in size limit (to preserve the most number of actual fishing days) will lead to harder success ratio for anglers, more bycatch mortality on throwbacks, and the harvest of greater numbers of breeding females (what many consider to be part of the problem with the lower spawning stock biomass to begin with). Then again, we may be able to retain our current size limit by essentially scaling back 23% on the length of our fluke season.

So, if you’re in the ‘shared’ region that comprises Connecticut, New York and New Jersey as an example, you could possibly retain the five fish at 18-inch size limit, but the 127 allowable days of season you have enjoyed in 2015 will have be cut back by 23%; ballpark estimate, that means losing about 28 days of season, or roughly two weeks taken away from both the beginning and end of the current fluke season.

That’s the big takeaway of course; but there’s more to the ongoing fluke madness.

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