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The decision to cut the 2016 fluke quota by 29% could prove painful to anglers and business owners - Fisherman Magazine readers can help get involved with scientific and legislative solutions.
By Nick Cicero
Tags: inshore, fisheries management
From the author’s personal and professional perspective, future reduction in bag limits, increase in size and shorter seasons overall on fluke is “clearly punitive” in nature and could bottom out the recreational fishing industry without pragmatic reform.

For the last 6 years I've worked diligently and been a big part of the effort to raise $200,000 in SSFFF (Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund) funding. The money has gone 100% to fund better fluke science in the hope that better scientific stock modeling tools would result in better management and ultimately better public access.

I thought we were making progress and that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was in agreement that their stock model was outdated and didn't reflect the true state of the population. So to be blindsided with this recent unsubstantiated cut is a real shock and an insult to our collective sense of property.

The fluke are much more resilient than many would suggest. First and foremost managing - or I should say the current method of micro-managing - the fluke fishery doesn’t seem to be working. Changing limits each and every year doesn't even give any strategy time to play out!

Good smart management would include regulations and quotas that remain the same for a minimum of three seasons with 3 or 5 years being a better option. Just because you reduce mortality one year doesn't mean that next year you'll see an increase in young of the year; certainly striped bass science has taught us that!

Only Mother Nature knows why some years produce bumper crops of babies while other seasons are dismal failures. Actually, the largest year class of striped bass on record was produced by one of the lowest adult populations in history! Truth is there is significant proof showing that when adult populations are low that reproduction occurs at an earlier age and is often more prolific. Again a clear indication of Mother Nature monitoring and adapting to changes in conditions and environment.

The fact is that one of the components of the SSFFF funded study now underway by a couple of scientists at Rutgers and Cornell has identified a significant northbound shift in fluke density with significant populations now in places that 10 years ago hosted only a few. In a nutshell, the fish do move and are moving each year. Now, I know it’s hard to explain that to folks who are not catching in a favorite spot where they used to be successful; but in most cases the fluke are very abundant in most places throughout the range.

The problem is that the sizes we used to keep, and that once made up a good portion of our seasonal catches, are now off limits. Face it, most fluke have always been around 16 to 17 inches long. Back in the day and in a "newly rebuilt" fishery they are still roughly the same size. Contrary to the preservationist theory, preventing public access to fluke will not create a sea full of halibut! One might say that fluke fishing is generally fine; however, it’s fluke keeping that's our problem.

Other issues that can explain the lack of young of the year fluke in a few specific monitoring locations most certainly can be attributed to changes in predator density location and subsequent fluke population movements. The biomass of spiny dogfish that the NMFS over-protective regulations have spawned is unfathomable as is the destructive effect of those predators. Sea bass over-abundance has had its way with young of the year flounder, both winter and summer flavors.

And lastly, blame must be assigned to any management strategy that forces us to target spawning class females exclusively. It’s crazy; we’re talking biological suicide! Basic logic, and good common sense, would indicate that a smart management plan should allow angler retention of fluke across a broad spectrum of year classes and sizes rather than keying us into this cubbyhole where we now find ourselves.

NMFS is mismanaging this totally rebuilt fishery so badly that if we continue down this road we will in fact be in trouble again soon. The regulatory inspired discards are deplorable and any manager that continues to allow this to continue is in my opinion displaying a despicable lack of responsibility to the resource.

One can't help but see the clearly punitive nature of these new regulations and the lack of real direction it displays, that is beyond a purely preservation motivated agenda implemented for no other reason than “we can.” Fact is, the proposed quota for next year is by far substantially less than what we lived with during the lowest point in the "rebuilding years." That’s right, now that we have the largest population of fluke in modern day fisheries management history, we will be saddled with the lowest quota in decades (on a fishery that is not considered overfished!)

Do I think we have some spots that display poor fishing this season? Absolutely. But do I think we are at the precipice of disaster? Hell no! Over reaction and punitive regulations that pander to a few so-called environmental watchdog organizations are going to cause public, private and financial hardships without much legitimacy. Yes, by restricting seasons, it does in fact deny the public access to a healthy population of a commonly held renewable resource.

And in the long run this strategy doesn't insure the abundance of the species for future generations of recreational fishermen.

Congress needs to pass pragmatic Magnuson Stevens Act reform (HR 1335 approved by the House) so we can move forward with a new set of protocols and manage our fisheries with a common sense approach!

EDITOR'S NOTE: A longtime supporter of better management and more equitable allocation of our marine resources, Nick Cicero is the Sales Manager of the Mahwah, NJ based Bimini Bay Outfitters and the Folsom Corporation, the largest wholesale fishing tackle manufacturer and distributor in the Northeast. A veteran angler and captain, Cicero is one of the founding members of the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund and sits on the board of directors of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.