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NOAA Fisheries is proposing a 30% reduction in the 2017 fluke quota, but with recreational overage penalties it could ultimately reduce angler access by 40% or more.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

Those public comments collected by NOAA Fisheries through November 30 will be reviewed, analyzed, discussed, debated and ultimately ignored during the fisheries management hearings in Baltimore in December.

Sorry, that’s pretty much how the law works; NOAA Fisheries holds all the cards, with the environmental non-government organizations (they call ‘em ENGO’s) set to legally close down the entire game anytime the fishermen get dealt a kind hand.

Of course, with a showing of several hundred anglers in the audience on Wednesday, December 14, those rubber-stamp decisions won’t be made without seeing a few of the friendly faces who will be impacted by this regulatory edict.

One MAFMC member told me, “this is an issue quite frankly when people should be in the room,” explaining how it gets harder for council members to cast a deciding vote when their constituents are sitting there in plain view in the audience.

A pretty full day of fluke discussion is set to take place on Wednesday, December 14 starting off with a 9 a.m. meeting with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Boards, with the proposed summer flounder amendment discussion, effects on ocean acidification on summer flounder reproduction and productivity, and the recreational specifications discussion from 1 to 3 p.m. to adopt recommendations for the 2017 season.

That’s when angler representation will have its greatest impact.

If your fishing club is looking for something special to do before the year is out, a chartered bus trip might be in order. Check with your local tackle shop or for-hire captain, perhaps a few customers would be interested in taking a ride.

The angler advocates at the American Sportfishing Association and Recreational Fishing Alliance say an act of Congress or response from the incoming Trump administration will ultimately offer the only salvation; even that will be difficult due to the way the federal fisheries law is written. It doesn’t matter whether you pulled the lever to the right or to the left in November, the fact is the incoming administration and Secretary of Commerce are the only ones who can make a final legal and regulatory decision to help stave off dire socioeconomic impacts from these massive cuts to the fluke fishery.

These are the hard and basic facts. We’ll have more information in upcoming editions of The Fisherman Magazine – in print and online – as the process moves forward.

One important consideration is that the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF) research that many anglers, groups and businesses helped fund is on the MAFMC schedule for discussion on Tuesday, December 13th after 3 p.m. Dr. Patrick Sullivan, lead researcher in a collaborative project between Cornell University, Rutgers University, Stockton University and the University of Rhode Island is set to detail findings from field surveys in 2016 showing how female fluke dominate the recreational catch over the legal size limit, where the fish smaller than the legal limit are predominately male.

From the official findings in the SSFFF-funded study, management strategies in the recreational fishery in the future should include the potential for a slot limit fishery to distribute fishing mortality more evenly across both sexes. The study is worth a read, and should lead to enhanced understanding of the summer flounder fishery in years ahead and could help provide enhanced management based on the sex-specific nature of fish in the population.

It’s important to keep in mind that the data gathered and work generated from the SSFFF study is a two-year project in a best case scenario. It will be presented to MAFMC in December, hopefully incorporated into the stock assessment work in year one, and then peer-reviewed by scientists in year two. Regrettably, it won’t be considered “best available science” for our present fluke situation, but surely will be in years to come.

Remember too that the summer flounder fishery was just rebuilt to the highest biomass in fisheries management history; five years ago, we were fishing with a much higher quota and more sensible seasonal limits while still reaching that lofty goal. NOAA Fisheries is showing diminished recruitment of new fish; could it be all the tinkering over the past 8 years, the increasing size limits and intensified harvest on broodstock fluke that actually impacted the overall biomass and recruitment numbers? Perhaps the SSFFF work will provide better answers in the next couple of years.

But, you’re angry now, this year – and so are we.

The question is, what are we willing to do about it?

STEP 1 - Visit the federal e-rulemaking portal and enter your comments, along with your contact information, before the November 30 deadline.

STEP 2 - Plan to attend the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council's December 2016 meeting in Baltimore, MD on December 14.

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