Anglers and legislators alike are calling for a new “benchmark assessment” for fluke, but what’s it all mean?
Time is ticking down on the 2017 summer flounder season – not the ending of the fluke season of course, but any possible start date, which for some states may not occur until sometime after Memorial Day! With a 30% overall reduction to both the recreational and commercial quota on the table, along with an additional 10% “overage” penalty for the recreational community based on NOAA’s 2016 Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP, aka MRFSS), anglers and recreational fishing industry folks in many states are understandably nervous.
This month, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) will officially sign off on NOAA Fisheries approved management measures for the coastwide recreational fluke harvest, approving a final season, size and bag limit for all states on the Atlantic Coast.
The problem – hence the variety of options debated in various state meetings throughout January – is the fundamental goal of the fishery management plan for summer flounder, which is to provide recreational anglers with “fair and equitable access to shared fishery resources throughout the range of each managed species.” Based on the 2017 options, “fair and equitable access” ranges from as low as 53 days of allowable fishing days in Connecticut under a state-specific conservation equivalent management approach, versus a high end of 365 days in Delaware.
Under a separate “Fish Sharing” option under review by fisheries managers this month, anglers in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey might be allowed two fish at 18 inches for a 59-day season, while Delaware, Maryland and Virginia anglers get four fish at 16 inches for 365 days (Rhode Islanders on the other hand would be allowed four fish at 19 inches for 118 days, with Massachusetts going to five fish at 16 inches and a 125-day season.).
It’s become a bitter pill to swallow; such disparity in season, size and bag limit given the management principles of fair/equitable/reasonable access and how to achieve it. Perhaps it’s understandable why some anglers at the northern and southern end of the range prefer standing on the sidelines for this debate; scientifically speaking however, it’s a sword that cuts by random blows and can sever access anywhere, anytime and for almost any arbitrary reason!
A Benchmark Analysis
Complicating the fluke issue this year is the fact that significant reductions are due to a 2016 Stock Assessment Update; the key word here being update. A routine stock assessment update is as easy as inputting a couple of commercial and recreational harvest numbers into a standing assessment model, with results spewed forth in as little as a few weeks to perhaps a couple of months. On the other hand, an in-depth benchmark analysis may take up to a full-year and is dependent on new trawl survey work, updates to the actual model, as well as acceptance of new, previously unrecognized science and statistical data from a variety of different sources.
The last time the summer flounder stock was analyzed by way of a benchmark assessment was in 2013. If the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA Fisheries, were to follow their own project plan, that full-scale analysis of the coastwide fluke fishery would’ve already been underway, which has become one of the biggest issues for anglers in states taking huge hits, especially given the availability of new scientific findings and techniques for sampling since that last in-depth analysis.
For example, independent scientists have been working on new assessment techniques to better assess both male and female summer flounder based on their different life history characteristics. It is believed that this sex-specific assessment approach can better predict the stock size-recruitment relationship and other biological reference points. Also, biological information on male and female summer flounder gathered primarily from the recreational fishery over the past two years is also available, which may prove value for alternative management approaches in the recreational sector to improve recruitment, yet none of this can be incorporated into a simple NOAA “update” but only upon initiation of a new “benchmark” stock assessment.
Sure, the most outspoken members of the recreational fishing community are those from the most heavily afflicted states smack dab in the middle of the fishery where restrictions are most dire; but the criticisms are based on a need for comprehensive data and better scientific models, not just a need to harvest more of the fish. Imagine, fishermen are calling for timely scientific assessments, whereas the scientists themselves surprisingly have been the most unresponsive to any more in-depth and on-schedule analysis!
As of the start of this year, NOAA Fisheries had no plans to coordinate a benchmark assessment on summer flounder in 2017 despite countless letters from members of Congress urging them to do so. In fact, in a report to the Council and Commission on December 14, 2016 – the public hearing where NOAA Fisheries officially ignores all public input – the agency would say only that a benchmark assessment “might” be done in 2018. That of course didn’t sit well with legislators from those states getting the short end of the “fair and equitable” access stick.
“It’s not even New Year’s Day and the feds have already managed to drop the ball on setting fair fluke limits based on real science, rather than on outdated information,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) at a December 22 press conference at the docks of Captree State Park on Long Island “The best available science should win the day, so my argument to the feds is to take a look at the science, update the model and get 2017 back on the right track for this essential recreational and job-generating Long Island industry.”
In a follow-up letter that day to the outgoing Commerce Secretary, Penny Pritzker, and NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, Sen. Schumer again requested that the Commerce Department and NOAA Fisheries address the need for a new benchmark assessment, which the senator said has been delayed since 2015. “I urge you to revisit and amend the final rule to the current 2016 quota levels until a new summer flounder benchmark assessment is completed, which will help ensure that decisions of this magnitude are based off the best and most up to date science,” Schumer noted.
In terms of the drastic cut to the 2017 summer flounder quota, Sen. Schumer said, “Decisions of this magnitude should be based solely upon the most up to date science data and models, which is why it is imperative that you complete a new summer flounder benchmark assessment as quickly as possible, but no later than 2017.”
As of the start of the New Year, there was still no response from outgoing Secretary Pritzker, though Sen. Schumer told the crowd at Captree that he was looking forward to working with incoming Trump appointee for Commerce Secretary, New Jersey native and New York businessman Wilbur Ross. “Whoever I have to, to get this changed,” Schumer told fishermen assembled along the fleet of Long Island party boats.
An Act of Congress?
According to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) workshop calendar, the last summer flounder benchmark stock assessment workshop was in 2013. However, as Sen. Schumer pointed out, these benchmark assessments are supposed to be done every three years. New data, models, and papers, all which could bring new science to the table, can only be admitted through a Stock Assessment Workshop (SAW) by way of the Stock Assessment Review Committee (SARC). Yet with only a casual “update” to the assessment in 2016 and no “benchmark” assessment on NEFSC’s work calendar as of the start of 2017, it would appear as if the rules are indeed being broken, only it’s not by the fishermen!
“NOAA has relied on inaccurate data to finalize these reductions,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) who attended the December hearings in Baltimore, MD. Like Sen. Schumer from New York, Pallone has been pressing NOAA Fisheries to move forward with a benchmark assessment in 2017 while joining Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) in requesting that NOAA postpone a decision on 2017 summer flounder quotas until it conducts a new benchmark summer flounder assessment. Thus far, the congressional appeals to fast-track a benchmark assessment for fluke have been ignored.
“Fishermen have sacrificed for years to improve summer flounder biomass, and flounder populations have rebounded,” Rep. Pallone said, adding “instead of putting onerous regulations on fishermen just trying to make a living, NOAA should be focused on rebuilding trust and ensuring that the science it uses to guide stock assessments is accurate.”
As discussed in Baltimore, MD during the Council and Commission gathering, part of a full-scale benchmark assessment would be incorporation of a twin-sweep survey to help determine the efficiency of the current trawl surveys coordinated by NOAA Fisheries. As you may have read in the January edition of The Fisherman in New York or New Jersey, as NOAA Fisheries was conducting a benchmark stock assessment on witch flounder in 2016, a new empirical based model was used that had a commercial vessel towing commercial style gear called a chain sweep in the very same area as the NOAA’s research vessel, which 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, and was shown to have caught just 27% of the witch flounder that nearby commercial vessels caught in similar tows during the twin-sweep analysis. Because smaller flounder were not well represented in the R/V Bigelow catch surveys in 2016, a summer flounder specific twin sweep survey is expected to be integrated into the next benchmark assessment for fluke, whenever that does take place.
There’s also the sex-specific sampling data research coordinated by researchers from the universities of Rutgers, Stockton, Cornell and Rhode Island during the 2016 season using discards in the recreational sector. Much of this new, independent research by these accredited universities and researchers was made possible from donations by fishermen themselves. It’s been a long process to gather this data, but it’s essentially useless until NOAA Fisheries responds to the benchmark assessment request.
“It is imperative that the benchmark assessment is scheduled for 2017 as a benchmark assessment is the only opportunity to incorporate new data sources as well as utilize a different modeling approach developed by Dr. Pat Sullivan under a multiple year science program directed and funded by Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF),” explained Greg Hueth, chairman of SSFFF. “If not, both the commercial and recreational industries are going to be in big trouble over the next few years due to the reductions that NOAA is proposing.”
Note the reference to “the next few years” above. No disrespect intended, but for those still standing on the sidelines because the draconian cutbacks aren’t impacting your home state waters, without a full-scale, in-depth analysis of the fluke stock by way of a benchmark assessment (now one year delayed by NOAA Fisheries and soon to be two years as of this season), expect that sword to swing again sometime down the line; it always does!
And without the best available science, the next cut could be the most damaging of all, to the fishermen, the fishing industry, and perhaps even the fish themselves – and that’s a problem across all regions!