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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

So how did we get here?

As reported in the August edition of The Fisherman, part of the problem today is the same as it was 10 years ago when we nearly faced a complete shutdown of the entire fluke fishery. Essentially, survey data used for analyzing the fluke stock and what saltwater anglers actually catch is limited by a number of scientific issues, notably sex- and region-specific models and that relationship to natural mortality and recruitment. In laymen’s terms, without accounting for the differences between male fluke and female fluke, and the habits and habitat of these fish in the southern range versus the north, NOAA Fisheries is using a ‘one-size-fits all model’ for everything flat.

In terms of a shrinking spawning stock biomass, any number of factors can play a part in the statistical modeling. The fact that recreational anglers are forced to harvest the bigger, ‘broodstock’ fish has to be taken into account; statistically speaking, researchers point to the fact that our recreational harvest is made up of over 90% female fish, those which are 18 inches or larger based on the size limits north of Delaware. Whether you want to call it ‘climate change’ or natural migration dynamics, tagging data shows that as summer flounder grow larger they tend to migrate to the north.

According to Dr. Eleanor Bochenek, director of the Fisheries Cooperative Center at Rutgers University, and a leading local researcher who has worked extensively with studying both black sea bass and summer flounder, a major component missing from the sampling data is the sex-specific details of recreational discards. “In the recreational sector we have no idea of what fish thrown back are female versus males,” Dr. Bochenek says. “We really need this information from the recreational sector to apply to the stock assessment model.”

Years ago, Dr. Bochenek says researchers were just starting to collect sex based data on summer flounder and they found completely different mortality rates between males and females. “There had never been a sex-based model built for this species before,” said Bochenek. That was until the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF) was founded in 2007 by a group of hardcore saltwater anglers and supporters who helped fund critical findings which helped lead to an 87% increase in quota through the 2011 season for every East Coast fisherman. While some folks in the preservationist community criticized SSFFF’s efforts as simply anti-fish pro-industry data, the scientific community sat up and took notice of the statistical findings as it related to stock assessments. With this cooperative research peer-reviewed and accepted, an imminent shutdown of the 2009 season was avoided.

Years later, we’re still bound by the same serious data gaps posing a serious impact to the recreational fishery in 2016, while potentially doing further harm to the stock itself. “It’s an important piece that we need to find out about,” said Dr. Pat Sullivan of Cornell University, who’s currently working to change the way the stock assessments are modeled and evaluated at the regional level. “While the NMFS trawl survey contains sex information, it’s hard to identify the sex of the fish landed in the recreational sector,” Dr. Sullivan said. “The challenge is that we’d like to have sex specific information from all sources, but it’s just not currently available.”

Again, in layman’s terms, if anglers are forced to harvest only the breeders, is it that hard to figure out where the reduction in ‘spawning stock biomass’ may be coming from? Given that female fluke grow bigger than males, Dr. Sullivan points to recreational size limits as a prime example of statistical needs, given that more breeding females are actually harvested by anglers. He’s hoping that new statistical models will bridge the gap between what we have now and what we truly need to better analyze the stock.

As for the ‘new recruitment’ or young of the year fluke which may be missing from the equation in terms of the government data, it would seem quite feasible to the everyday angler that ‘less breeders, less breed’ is part of the problem. But looking into the issue more closely, one might reasonably assume that stringent preservation of other predatory species like spiny dogfish and black sea bass – an imbalanced effort to create preservation and abundance – could significantly impact the amount of young fluke. While local commercial fishermen are once again allowed to harvest spiny dogs, the environmentalists’ who forced the closure of this fishery a decade ago ultimately destroyed that market, creating an over-abundance of fluke-hungry sea wolves.

There are ways around the problem, including better science and perhaps new management concepts.

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