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Researchers from the universities of Cornell and Rutgers are at the half-way point of summer flounder sampling aboard party boats from Delaware Bay to Point Judith in Rhode Island.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

If your fishing logs for five consecutive years show consistent fluke catches along a particular inshore lump for the entire month of July, yet in season six you’re skunked all the way through August, what does this tell you about the fishing?

For the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), the downtrend in collections during the 2016 trawl surveys on summer flounder show them that “stock projections have been consistently over-optimistic” in recent years, and that the “stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished,” unless of course reductions in quota are taken in 2017.

In other words, if the fish aren’t showing up in trawl surveys, then there must be a problem with the stock!

While the undesirable news on the future of summer flounder fishing has been slow in making the rounds since the SSC assembled with MAFMC members in Baltimore on July 21-22, the word on the street is beginning to intensify; based on best/worst case scenarios. That is, the overall quota for Atlantic Coast fishermen in 2017 is likely be set at 11.3 million pounds, roughly 4 million pounds below where it was supposed to be. The question is, will we see a 20-30% reduction in allowable landings and a resulting cutback in season, size and bag limit in the recreational sector? It’s actually still too early to tell.

Theoretically speaking, if our recreational landings come in at 20-30% under harvest in 2016 based on sampling data from the Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, an argument could be made that by leaving the same regulations in place for another year it would meet any required cutbacks in future quota. Then again, if MRIP shows we’re at or above the allowable landings for the year, the news for 2017 could become even more undesirable!

Suffice to say, there’s more to the story and all is not yet lost. Consider that the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF) has been actively engaged in funding research that will allow managers a clearer understanding of the dynamics of the summer flounder fishery. While trawl survey samples and statistical analysis came up short, the SSC’s official findings on the five-year downward trend in stock indices which include overall recruitment contains some degree of scientific uncertainty. For example, scientists don’t fully understand all the sources of mortality contained in their currently used stock assessment, nor can they account for changes in fluke life history and geographic redistribution

While reasons for climate change continue to lead to divisive arguments along the political right and left, the very real observations of fishermen and marine scientists show coastal waters are indeed in a warming trend; the fish in turn are responding with obvious changes in migratory patterns. In the case of fluke, it could be possible that more of these fish are moving north or potentially farther east into deeper, cooler waters; there’s also an argument to be made that fluke are spreading out across wider areas. The big question in everyone’s mind is of course, what’s the real story with the status of summer flounder?

“It’s kind of early to figure out what’s going to happen, but it sure gives us a sense of urgency,” said Greg Hueth on July 28 at an SSFFF presentation to local stakeholders at the Reel Seat in Brielle. Hueth said scientists are “very interested in what we’re doing” in terms of the current work by researchers at the universities at Rutgers and Cornell, while adding “hopefully we’ll get a seat at the table next summer,” where the commissioned research findings can be presented. If you thought it was hot this summer, wait until these fluke discussions heat up in the coming months!

As spotlighted previously at TheFisherman.com, 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. Patrick Sullivan of Cornell is developing a new sex-specific population assessment model to be applied to summer flounder stocks off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Through his experience working directly with NMFS staff over the years, Dr. Sullivan is looking to bridge a longstanding gap between coastal communities and researchers at the federal level of government. As he explained to a couple of dozen attendees on July 28, he’s working in conjunction with NMFS to develop an alternative model for predicting fluke populations using sex-specific data and lifespan variables of the fish.

“We’re integrating sex, size and age data into the model,” Dr. Sullivan noted, explaining how researchers are using new techniques unique to the fish sampling field. While much of the fluke population data in previous years has been based solely on overall poundage and big fish kept by anglers and sampled dockside, very little information has been collected on length or age of fish and how that might relate to the males and females in the population. Dr. Sullivan explained that without that collected data, it’s been impossible to relate anecdotal findings back to scientists at the federal fisheries service.

“It’s a catch 22, we if create the catch-length model, we have to gather the catch-length data,” Dr. Sullivan said, explaining the importance of the ongoing work funded through SSFFF and its individual donors.

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