Fluke fishermen are once again being asked to bite the bullet, yet investigations reveal a new smoking gun!
Late in 2016, NOAA Fisheries announced that their 2016 summer flounder assessment showed continued overfishing, with a fluke stock biomass in decline particularly with regard to the smaller, younger fish. In response this missing recruitment of young fluke, the federal government has proposed a 30 percent reduction from catch limits previously implemented for the 2017 season, along with a 16 percent reduction from current 2018 allocations.
And because the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) showed rather dramatic overharvest in the recreational sector in 2016 in several Atlantic Coast states, that means we’re officially “overfishing” the fluke stock across the board. So, combine that 30 percent quota reduction (which affects both the commercial and recreational sector) with penalties specifically for recreational overage stemming from the 2016 MRIP numbers, and the full cutback for the recreational sector was thought to be in the 40 percent neighborhood as the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council met back in December in Baltimore, MD.
When we posted the full story over at TheFisherman.com on November 25, things got a bit dicey. Angler advocates from the American Sportfishing Association and Recreational Fishing Alliance put out email blasts to the angling public seeking public comment at the NOAA Fisheries rulemaking website, social media went bonkers, and within a few short days, the online comments in opposition to the NOAA proposal went from about a dozen to more than 1,200 by the November 30 deadline. Of course, there were a handful of folks who supported the federal government’s findings and believed strongly that major cutbacks in angler harvest were warranted and necessary to preserve the summer flounder stock from being decimated. While no decision on season, size and bag limit was firmly set as of the end of 2016, there’s sure to be more debate in the coming days, weeks and months from both sides of the fence as final regulations continue to get debated. It will be interesting to see how NOAA Fisheries responds under a new White House administration. For anglers who might be swayed into thinking that summer flounder may be going the way of their winter cousins and are in need of dire restrictions to protect those spawning fish and their young, let’s take a quick look at a couple of pieces of scientific data that emerging from the fluke fiasco wreckage in recent months.
Sampling the Small Fish
Also called Torbay sole or grey flounder, the witch flounder is a right-eyed flatfish found in North Atlantic waters. In 2016, NOAA Fisheries was conducting a benchmark stock assessment on witch flounder to determine its overall health and sustainability. One of the biggest developments with that assessment was that the model previously used was thrown out in exchange for a new empirical based model relying on something known as a “twin sweep” efficiency survey. This dual survey consists of a commercial vessel towing commercial style gear called a chain sweep in the very same areas and at the same time as the NOAA’s research vessel that deploys a survey net with rock hopper gear. That NOAA research ship, the R/V Bigelow, is the same vessel used to survey summer flounder stocks by trawling the fluke grounds.
Specific to witch flounder, the twin sweep survey found that the R/V Bigelow only caught 27 percent of the witch flounder that nearby commercial vessels caught in similar tows. What researchers may have learned from this effort is that flatfish respond to an otter trawl by coming up off the bottom about half the length of the fish; it was thereby shown that the rock hopper gear was too large on the R/V Bigelow, as it essentially skimmed over the top of the smaller witch flounder.
The end result when comparing the two surveys was that the R/V Bigelow wasn’t catching the small flatfish in their tow as compared to the commercial vessel that trawled using different equipment. Because NOAA Fisheries couldn’t find the flounder aboard the Bigelow, their scientific response was that there are no smaller flounder to be caught; yet as the commercial folks showed, indeed the small fish were present, but the Bigelow simply couldn’t catch them!
Despite not being the target species in the witch flounder assessment, summer flounder were routinely observed in this twin sweep survey, leading researchers to determine that the Bigelow caught about half of the summer flounder as the nearby commercial vessel using the chain sweep method.
Because smaller summer flounder were not well represented in the R/V Bigelow catch surveys in 2016, a summer flounder specific twin sweep survey is now scheduled to take place during the summer of 2017. Even some of the researchers appear to be coming around to the fact that the low catch rates of small flatfish by the R/V Bigelow gear may likely be the cause for their statistical collapse in the stock recruitment curve.
In other words, if a “chain sweep” is deemed more effective at trawling for small flounder than the “rock hopper gear trawl” results, it could very well show why there’s been a measureable decline in summer flounder recruitment since the R/V Bigelow came online for stock assessments in 2009. Perhaps it’s not necessarily that the small fluke aren’t there, but it’s possible that NOAA’s fancy new research vessel just can’t catch them!
Keep in mind that this is preliminary information, certainly not enough for NOAA Fisheries to incorporate into an argument for this season. The witch flounder twin-sweep data itself will need to get peer-reviewed; and the sample size for fluke in this particular survey was very small. They’re won’t be a real accurate picture on this issue until a directed fluke study is coordinated in the summer of 2017.
Harvesting the Big Fish
It’s important to remember that the 30 percent cutback proposal was across the board, both the commercial and recreational sector. It’s rather interesting to note that the effectiveness of the commercial draggers in the “twin sweep” efficiency survey could help determine the true health of the summer flounder fishery, but many anglers still look at that sector as the cause of all our problems. Ironic, huh? Of course, in terms of the harvest of big, breeding fish during the spawn, there’s a valid point to be made in that angler criticism.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, summer flounder spawning generally occurs in the fall and winter during offshore migrations and/or at the wintering grounds, with fish spawning north of Chesapeake Bay beginning in September and continuing through December, while fish spawning south of Chesapeake Bay beginning in November and ending in February. No doubt, it’s not the recreational sector harvesting fluke during the spawn, particularly out at the Hudson Canyon in January!
Then again, due to the methodology by which NOAA Fisheries manages the recreational fishing community, we are however harvesting almost nothing but potential spawners. Every time that council members have to meet the quota reductions handed down by NOAA Fisheries’ data, the first thing to go is available fishing days, followed by increases in size limits designed to limit the recreational catch.
The folks from the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF) may have help on the way with our side of the spawning equation.
The results of a recent collaborative study (Sex and Length of Summer Flounder Discards in the Recreational Fishery, NJ to RI) between researchers at Rutgers University and Stockton University of New Jersey, the University of Rhode Island, and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, NY and Cornell University spanned the 2016 summer flounder recreational season beginning May 23 and continuing through September 16. Samples were collected aboard for-hire recreational fishing vessels from selected ports in New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island, and were supplemented by a series of back bay, shallow water trips.
Samples were collected from stations ranging in depth from 5 to 95 feet and spanning a latitudinal range from just off the coast of Delaware to coastal Rhode Island. According to the survey results, sex-at-length data was collected for a total of 2,243 discard-sized fish and 842 legal-sized fish. Researchers say lab analysis findings confirm prior observations that female summer flounder dominate the recreational catch, although it was also demonstrated that this does not hold below the legal size limit where fish smaller than the legal limit were predominately male.
On average, across all ports, dates and depths, the sex ratio approximates 50/50 at 15.35 inches in length, with males dominant in the size classes less than that mark and females dominant above the 15.35-inch (39 cm) mark.
A Case for Smaller Size Limits
One major question yet to be answered by the researchers is what happens to male fluke when they reach keeper size? Thus far, there are few statistical samples of big males above the 18-inch size class and up, typical of the restrictions when NOAA Fisheries mandates quota cuts.
“The data reported here provide important insights for possible management strategies in this fishery,” researchers state in their conclusion, adding that one potential management change for the future could be a slot limit fishery to distribute the fishing mortality more evenly across both sexes. Such strategy could be achieved by allocating some of the allowable catch to smaller size classes where males are more dominant. In addition to providing a better understanding of the general biology of summer flounder, another possible management application is in the design of sex-specific assessment models to better analyze the fluke population. “Sex composition of recreationally discarded summer flounder remains a key need for development of a sex-specific stock assessment model, and the data generated in this study will be shared directly with the team developing that model,” the researchers noted.
It is hoped that this new sex-specific sampling information will help drive a new stock assessment model being developed by Cornell University’s Dr. Patrick Sullivan in time for a 2017 benchmark stock assessment. Given that this information will also need to be peer-reviewed by an independent team of scientists, the critical sex composition data developed last season may not actually be incorporated into new management strategies until next season. That leaves more questions of course for this coming 2017 season. There will undoubtedly be plenty of bickering from both sides of the fence; the key will be unifying under a common agreement that the best available science needs to get better. In terms of a sustainable stock of fluke, with fair and equitable access by the angling public, that should be a priority for all.
Final word on fluke limits from the fed will become more official later on this winter, and then it’s back to your state fisheries department or advisory council to approve recreational season, size and bag limit to meet the proposed reductions. Hopefully, by March, we’ll all know the outcome. Let’s hope our summer flounder fishery is made great again – someday!