2016-09-08 / Nature

Fisheries Want Reduction in Fluke Catches

By James Merolla

Rhode Island summer flounder fishing – by boat or on rocky shoals – has been incredibly abundant this year; maybe too abundant.

With many millions of pounds of flounder having been caught commercially and recreationally along the mid-Atlantic coast, the federal board that controls quotas, limits, and size has announced it will cut back catches in 2017.

Large halibut, winter flounder, and summer flounder (or fluke), cousins in the same fold, have made a remarkable comeback in the last two decades after pollution, overheated water from energy plants, and overfishing nearly wiped them all out.

Yet, last week, the Mid- Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reviewed catch specs for scup, black sea bass and bluefish, and issued modified specifications for fluke.

Both the council and the commission approved a commercial quota for fluke of 5.66 million pounds (down from 8.12 million) and a recreational harvest limit of 3.77 million pounds (down from 5.42 million) for 2017, an approximate 30 percent decrease from 2016.

This decrease in catch limits responds to the findings of the 2016 stock assessment update, which indicates that fluke have been over-fished since 2008.

According to its website, the council will forward its recommendations on fluke specifications to the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Administrator for final approval. Local angling groups have already started a campaign to ask for a delay in the cuts until they can review stock numbers and provide their own assessments of the findings.

The formula that the federal board uses to determine whether a species is officially “over-fished” is complex, involving fishing mortality versus spawning stock biomass, thresholds to sustain quotas, and other percentages and criteria.

On the other hand, local anglers simply argue that the bay has never been healthier, with fish plentiful and large (a teen girl in Plymouth, Mass., caught a near-record 102-pound halibut in August). They maintain that the feds need to lighten up and stop hurting the already blistered commercial fishing business or the sheer fun had by recreational anglers.

But the Mid-Atlantic Council says it must put in a “rebuilding plan to reduce fishing mortality and rebuild stock biomass.” Their results are driven by what they call “underestimates of the fishing mortality level and below-average stock from 2010 through 2015.”

Simply put, the fisheries say, despite anglers catching fluke and flounder lure over fist, numbers have gone down for each of the last six seasons.

After a one-season reduction, however, the fisheries say that fluke harvest limits may be adjusted in the future based on changes in the fishery or new scientific information.

Size limits likely will remain the same (14 inches for commercial licenses, 18 inches for recreational; daily recreational limit is eight fish per day), but overall details on how the cuts will affect quotas for each class next summer have yet to be determined.

For scup and black sea bass, 2017 harvest limits remain unchanged relative to last year’s levels (in 2016, there was a reduction in the commercial quota due to overages in the previous year). Later this year, the commission will gather new data from two other studies to determine final limits. The 15-inch recreational minimum for black sea bass has been increased to seven fish per day from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, up from the summer limit of three.

For the bluefish fishery, the commission and council did not make any changes to the 2017 and 2018 specifications. Striped bass data was not part of this newest round of recommendations.

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