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Leading researchers are working to improve upon the best available science in the summer flounder fishery, with support from anglers, industry and the federal government.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.
Tags: inshore, fisheries management

In cooperation with scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and through funding provided by the SSFFF and Science Center for Marine Fisheries, in association with the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Sullivan is developing this sex-specific population assessment model to be applied to summer flounder stocks off the U.S. Atlantic coast.

“I’m building a model, but I’m also communicating,” Dr. Sullivan told a group of recreational fishing advocates on September 25th at a meeting in Brielle, NJ. Through his experience working directly with NMFS staff over the years, Sullivan is looking to bridge a longstanding gap between coastal communities and researchers at the federal level of government. “If we can create a model that will reduce variability, that will help us,” he said.

As one of the primary movers and shakers behind this new integrated model with leading independent researchers working in conjunction with top government experts is Greg Hueth, one of SSFFF’s cofounders. “Without this (work) I don’t think we’re going to be able to survive long-term,” Hueth said of the local fishing community which depends on summer flounder to survive.

“This is one of the first times we’re working with the government,” Hueth said, adding the cooperation with NMFS and Dr. Sullivan’s team with sharing of data has been remarkable and leaves many of the advocates optimistic for the future.

“While we’re building this model, we’re actually getting cooperation with the government,” Hueth added.

A key component of the final model is the need for improved data. Currently, no data exists on the sex composition of discarded fish in the recreational sector, or more specifically those fish released because they’re undersized. This information, combined with several other sources, will provide a better picture of the sex composition of the total catch in both the recreational and commercial fisheries, a critical input for Dr. Sullivan’s new sex-specific model for stock assessment.

To collect some of this vital information, scientists from Rutgers and Cornell will be doing work onboard recreational for-hire boats in 2016 to measure and sample summer flounder off the waters of New Jersey and New York, gather some of data for the sex-specific modeling efforts already underway. Dr. Sullivan has already contacted the Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council with regard to the ongoing work, and is hoping to get even more buy-in from top to bottom in terms of government officials and members of the fishing community itself.
“With this model we’ll make some bridges to get by for awhile until we get the data,” Dr. Sullivan said of the ongoing work to expand on the fluke science and statistical information. “We don’t want a model that’s the same; we want a model that’s better.”

When completed, SSFFF and supporters are hoping this new and comprehensive initiative will shed more light on the stock size and how to best create a refined assessment model to more accurately portray the state of the fluke fishery.
When completed, SSFFF and supporters are hoping this new and comprehensive initiative will shed more light on the stock size and how to best create a refined assessment model to more accurately portray the state of the fluke fishery, particularly with regard to spawning stock biomass and recruitment. Organizers and researchers stress this is a long-term project, and they’re hoping to present this information at the next Peer Review, which is expected sometime in 2017 or 2018.

“We’re on the right track now, but things are coming up and we’re going to need money,” Hueth said. SSFFF has recently received donations from the American Sportfishing Association, the New Jersey Chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the New York Fishing Tackle Trades Association, as well as the New York Sportfishing Federation, in addition to many local businesses and individual anglers. But SSFFF representatives say the biggest contributions thus far have come from the commercial sector which realizes how important it is for the future of the fluke fishery to get a better handle on growth rates and size differential between the sexes, particularly at it relates to the recreational model for harvest management.

“We’re all in this together,” Hueth said about the commercial and recreational participation in this ongoing scientific work. “We’re trying to get help and they’re helping to get money, but we’ve got to get more participation from the community to keep this effort moving forward.” A $30,000 commitment recently by the commercial fishing sector towards this improved science is dependent on the recreational community being able to raise the other half.

And while there are no guarantees on an outcome, all those involved know that the future of our coastal fisheries is based on better science and data in terms of changing climate, the shifting distribution of fish, and the growth and mortality rates of fluke by age, sex and length. The fact is, this statistical work is moving forward, and the scientists at Rutgers and Cornell are actively working to improve on the data collection methodologies, with support and cooperation from NMFS and the federal fisheries managers.

After years of screaming for better science, the commercial and recreational fishing community has gone to every possible source to get the funding together to support improved science (while Congress and big-time environmental groups have seemingly contributed little to this critical work); and to date, SSFFF alone has spent more than $170,000 in donations and grants to fund research and develop a better, more refined stock assessment model.

“We don’t go to dinner, we don’t pay for cell phones, every penny goes right into the fund,” said Hueth. “And either we do it or we just sit here and watch them dictate,” he said of the federal fisheries managers. As these volunteers have discovered during the past 8 years of work, being part of the solution in cooperation with the government is exactly what one would expect from best available science.

To help, visit the website at SSFFF.net or send a donation to SSFFF, P.O. Box 86, Brielle, NJ 08730.

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