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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 the coastwide summer flounder fishery, recreational quotas are managed by a statistical formula based on size, season and bag limit. Because fish are not weighed dockside and tabulated individually as in the commercial sector, a combination of dockside intercepts and phone surveys is used to estimate angler effort and harvest during the calendar year.

In theory, when a size limit is increased, it restricts angler ability to catch a keeper which therefore allows managers to provide more available fishing days; if a season were to be increased by days or weeks, the size limit for the fish would also need to increase in an effort to restrict angler success. This accordion-like method of managing recreational harvest limits is the reason for the 18-inch size limit in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region. It also leads to further discards of under-sized fish, which managers don’t know too much about in terms of their sex or mortality rates.

So if those states in the NJ/NY/CT region wanted to reduce the size limit to 17 inches as an example, the region would conversely have to give up several weeks, perhaps even months of season. As anglers and recreational fishing industry representatives have come to expect over the past 40 years, this is the science and statistical methodology for managing our fisheries, but there’s really not that much data collected to understand how that impacts the overall spawning stock biomass, nor the spawning recruitment.

Dr. Patrick Sullivan knows a thing or two about fisheries statistics and models. Associate Professor of Population and Community Dynamics in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, Dr. Sullivan has an M.S. in Fisheries Biology and a Ph.D. in Biomathematics and Biostatistics from the University of Washington. He has chaired or co-chaired three National Academy of Sciences fisheries science program reviews and is a member of the Scientific and Statistical Committee that advises the New England Fisheries Management Council.

When folks in the fisheries world refer to something as being ‘peer-reviewed’ Dr. Sullivan is usually the top ‘peer reviewer’ on the ‘peer-review’ panel that looks at all the scientific variables!

The challenge is that we’d like to have sex-specific information from all sources, but it’s just not currently available.
Before joining the faculty at Cornell in 1998 Sullivan was a population dynamicist for the International Pacific Halibut Commission in Seattle; so you could also he knows a thing or two about big flatfish. Something else he knows is that female fluke tend to produce eggs in proportion to their weight, and they also grow much larger than their male counterparts; scientifically speaking, with fisheries regulations being size-based targeting larger fish, Dr. Sullivan is one of a group of scientists hoping to get better data using a sex-specific model for summer flounder research.

Together with researchers from both Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension and Rutgers University in New Jersey, Dr. Sullivan is hoping to create a new sex-integrated model that provides better understanding and analysis of the entire fluke fishery. While some recreational intercept surveys coordinated today provide both age and length data for federal fisheries managers, not having data on the sex of the fish caught by anglers creates a level of uncertainty which not only impacts season, size and bag limit, it may also be impacting the fishery itself.

“It’s hard to identify the sex of the fish landed in the recreational sector,” explained 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.”

Without this information of course, the summer flounder science is not nearly as robust or comprehensive as it could be; and the one thing that fishermen in both the commercial and recreational sector have been pleading for in unison over the years is better, more improved science. This is precisely why the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF) was created in 2007.

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