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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

Where do we go from here?

Based on conversations with Council and ASMFC members, there’s very little flexibility around federal law to make a valid case for status quo...and I think we can forget about size and bag too; we’re looking at losing weeks (not days) of fluke fishing opportunity in 2016. While some would call this a little sacrifice for the good of the stock, it’s important for non-fluke fishermen to remember that a ‘closed season’ means no ability to target. No one enjoys ‘catch and release’ fishing for a consumptive fishery like fluke, and on those days when the season is closed it’s not legal to do so either.

In a recent edition of the New Jersey, Delaware Bay edition of The Fisherman, Bill Shillingford, an angler who has tagged more than 19,000 fish for the American Littoral Society over the years, including close to 7,000 fluke, offered a unique perspective on an ‘aggregate’ or ‘cumulative’ bag concept.

“Instead of measuring each fish and only keeping them when over 18 inches, let’s look at an option where a total length is used - five fish at 18 inches results in 90 inches total. Let’s drop the total length to 72 inches and a fisherman could keep two at 16 inches, one at 17 inches and one at 23 inches; or one at 16 inches, two at 17 inches and one at 22 inches.” As a member of the Council’s advisory panel for summer flounder, Shillingford says the concept of an ‘aggregate’ fluke limit could accomplish two things; first, it would spread recreational harvest out across several age and sex classes of summer flounder, and secondly it would reduce bycatch mortality of released fish.

“There are numerous combinations, but the average fisherman will be able to take some fish home and provide a nice dinner after spending somewhere around $100 plus for a day of fishing,” Shillingford noted, explaining how we are already killing a very high percentage of short fish now in an attempt to get 18-inch fish in the New Jersey, New York and Connecticut region specifically.

Scientifically, the concept may be a good one. In a 2006 research study coordinated by Rutgers University and the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), researchers found that a cumulative-size limit outperformed other management options, including the present management system as well as ‘slot’ concepts. “It works better than the slot,” said John Depersenaire, research scientist at RFA and one of three researchers including Dr. Bochenek and Dr. Eric Powell on this particular project funded by the research set-aside program. Depersenaire said managers have so far balked at the concept, citing issues with enforcement and perceived onboard mathematic problems for anglers, although he said the research project didn’t show that.

“A mechanism like this would allow anglers to take those smaller fish that are often injured badly and may not survive the release, and then make that part of their aggregate bag limit,” Depersenaire said. Citing research that showed that there’s actually less release mortality on bigger fish, this particular project actually lends credible evidence that there’s very little to gain in the fluke fishery by simply minimizing discards, and instead successful management options may be those that permit angler effort to be transferred from larger fish to smaller fish. “We need something, it’s now at the point of diminishing returns,” he said of the imminent cutback.

A new comprehensive, benchmark stock assessment for summer flounder with any new models is at least 2 years away, but Greg Hueth of SSFFF said they’re working hard to build momentum for government acceptance of a new sex-specific model for looking at female and male segments of the fluke population.

“Pat (Sullivan) is already building the model that we hope the federal government can incorporate and use, and this month he’s going to the Mid Atlantic Council and the Commission (ASMFC) to essentially plead the case for this better model and improved data,” Hueth said of the latest efforts. Over $170,000 in contributions and grant monies have already been spent on this project thus far, but Hueth and his fellow SSFFF volunteers believe the goal line is finally in sight. They’re recently received new donations from the New Jersey Chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, as well as the New York Sportfishing Federation, with commitments from various industry representatives.

SSFFF leaders say more money is needed to complete the project, and Hueth is hopeful that with concerted efforts by researchers like Sullivan, Bohenek and others working with NMFS, that summer flounder management moving forward will be greatly enhanced by better available science. “This is about keeping fluke healthy and available to fishermen in the future, it’s why we founded SSFFF in the first place,” Hueth said.

To donate or learn more about the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund and how to get involved, go to ssfff.net.

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