According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC), we should see a 16% increase in recreational harvest limits for summer flounder next season, so long as benchmark stock assessment results coming out in early 2019 don’t affect the numbers.
A “benchmark” assessment is a full-scale scientific review that allows new data elements and methodologies to be incorporated into the analysis; it’s what MAFMC refers to as a “scientifically rigorous review” with extensive internal and external peer review. Regrettably, the current assessment led by Mark Terceiro at NOAA Fisheries will not include sex-specific catch modeling. Though much of the information gathered through age/sex data research by the Save the Summer Flounder Fisheries Fund (SSFFF) is considered scientifically valuable, the actual modeling developed by Cornell University’s Dr. Patrick Sullivan is not included in the new assessment. What is included are new estimates of recreational catch from the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) which replaces the old Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (MRFSS). There’s a lot of concern right now based on the MRFSS to MRIP transition; early analysis shows the old MRFSS underestimated angler effort and harvest by as much as 300% when compared to new MRIP data. What does that mean? In a nutshell, saltwater anglers caught two to three times more fluke than was tabulated originally under the old system; so if our annual catch limit was 10 units, NOAA Fisheries says we may have actually caught 30 or more.
Whether you go by pounds or numbers of fish, the fed now thinks we caught even more fish in years past than previously thought; that’s if we’re to believe the new math of course! So, will our annual catch limits be reduced 300% to accommodate the new data? Good question, one that doesn’t seem answerable right now. One scientist told me it could actually be good news for anglers as it shows the fluke population was up to three times healthier in those days than previously thought; when recalibrating data heading in and out of the new assessment, we may actually get a bump in quota because of it!
Then again, it could go the other way, especially if the new benchmark assessment shows fluke to be considered overfished; once that “overfished” designation is applied, any fishing activity at all carries an “overfishing” label, which of course scares the heck out of the mainstream media and politicians. Then MAFMC would have to devise a rebuilding plan to reach a targeted biomass number within a 10-year timeframe. Under current law, a rebuilding plan must have a 50% chance of meeting the targeted deadline.
This is the crux of the “flexibility” argument that began in earnest back in 2006 during the last reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act, our nation’s primary fisheries law. That reauthorization was approved by the House on September 27, 2006, with the Senate passing it by “Unanimous Consent” on December 7. Luckily, Congress added a three-year extension to the summer flounder rebuilding timeframe thanks to pressure from the Recreational Fishing Alliance; that with the follow-up work by SSFFF kept us fluke fishing through 2010! While a House version of new Magnuson Stevens legislation passed in July, the only Senate bill out there is the Modern Fish Act (S.1520), which actually contains more-restrictive language that would require that councils implement rebuilding plans with a 75% chance of hitting the target. If the U.S. Senate was to pass the Modern Fish Act without discussion or debate (that’s essentially the definition of Unanimous Consent), fluke regulations during a future rebuilding plan therefore would be 25% more restrictive than if the law remained status quo. Suffice to say, that wouldn’t be good.
I expect we’ll be reporting a lot about the fluke situation in the coming months, both in print and online at TheFisherman.com. Just don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, November 6 – it looks like fluke regulations will come down to another Act of Congress.