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Fisheries managers will meet in Manhattan from Monday, August 10 through Thursday, August 13 with impending quota reductions anticipated for the 2016 summer flounder season.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  August 9, 2015
Fisheries managers will meet in Manhattan this week to discuss a host of fishy 'acronyms' that ultimately will impact the 2016 summer flounder seasons along the Atlantic Coast. Photo by Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

Of the multitude of acronyms used by fisheries managers, the ones to be debated most this Wednesday in New York City include OFL (Overfishing Limit), SSC (Scientific and Statistical Committee) and ABC (Annual Biological Catch.)

Fishing advocates from both fishing sectors attending this week’s Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) meeting in Manhattan are looking at ways of dealing with staggering cutback proposals for Atlantic coast fluke in 2016 in the 20% to 43% range, depending on who you talk to.

Earlier this year, the SSC proposed an OFL of 18.06 million pounds for next season’s fluke harvest – that essentially means that the science and statistical folks believe that by fishermen not going over the 18.06-million pound harvest mark in 2016, statutory ‘overfishing’ of this iconic species will not occur.

However, through various layers of precautionary discussion and analysis, the SSC also devised a secondary number for what we’d actually be allowed to harvest (ABC) in 2016 that they say is “based on stock assessment projections, council risk policy, and phase-in approach to reductions; to be adopted by Council and Board.” That numerical ABC limit of 16.26 million pounds becomes the basis of this week’s argument, as fishermen fear there’s very little hope of fighting a science and statistical system for ‘status quo’ to retain limits for 2016 as we had in 2015 because of federal law.

Perhaps the best that fishermen can hope for at this point in the game is to see that same federal law used to preserve the 1.8 million pounds of allowable harvest for next season, the difference between the OFL of 18.06 million pounds and the ABC of 16.26 million pounds.

While not ideal, that 1.8-million-pound differential between the two acronyms could mean a world of difference in terms of fluke fishing limits next season.

According to the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), the Magnuson Stevens Act mandates that the regional fishery councils “may not develop annual catch limits that exceed the recommendation of its scientific and statistical committee (SSC).” In citing that very same federal law, RFA is hopeful that the Council will agree to not put forward the more restrictive of the two numbers, given the NOAA Fisheries has legal authority to set the 2016 season based on the lesser of two evils.

And while setting the 2016 ABC at the higher OFL number will still result in a 20% reduction on our current harvest, RFA for one believes that every option needs to be pursued to lessen the impact on the recreational fishing community.

“Summer flounder was rebuilt in 2010, continues to be extremely robust and will likely have strong year classes (2014 and 2015) moving into the fishery beginning in 2016,” the organization said in a statement to be delivered on Wednesday. “In addition, RFA believes the 2013 benchmark assessment produced an extremely conservative OFL due to an assumed lower level of steepness of the stock-recruitment relations, lower than observed natural mortality rates and an assessment model that does not account for the sexually dimorphic characteristics of the summer flounder stock.”

With groups like the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund currently working to fund critical new research into sex-specific models for analyzing the fluke stock based on the differences between male and female of the species, fishing advocates in New York City this week are appealing to Council members and staff to consider the ramifications of increasing harvest on bigger, broodstock fluke, particularly in the New York and New Jersey region which managers recognize represents the focal point of the coast-wide recreational summer flounder fishery.

“A meager 127-day season has made it almost impossible for for-hire and head boats to derive the majority of their annual income from the summer flounder fishery as they did in the past,” RFA’s Jim Donofrio said. “The-18 inch minimum size limit has focused roughly 68% of the entire recreational summer flounder landings on large, female fish which is predicted to have a detrimental impact on the long-term productivity on the spawning stock biomass.”

Donofrio also noted that the 18-inch minimum size limit has all but excluded shore-based anglers from the hope of landing legal sized fish. “Factor in continued high abundance and availability to anglers and it is clear that any reduction to the ABC in 2016 will have a compounding negative impact on the ability to set reasonable, fair recreational measures,” Donofrio added.

While it’s clear to all that even a 20% reduction in allowable harvest in 2016 will have a negative impact on the recreational fishing community in terms of future size, bag limits and length of season, with reductions that range from 28% to upwards of 43% already discussed by Council, SSC members and NOAA Fisheries, clearly the arguments made this week in Manhattan can produce some positive result for both the fish and fishermen.

The Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council meets at the Holiday Inn Midtown at 330 West 57th Street in New York City from Monday, August 10 through Thursday, August 13. To log into the online webinar go to http://mafmc.adobeconnect.com/august2015/ and select "enter as guest" to view the discussion.

Read more about the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund .