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January 30, 2007

Fluke and the Fate of Fishing

How a Small Flatfish May Change National Management Priorities

Why this Crisis Happened
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in state waters and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) in federal waters jointly manage fluke. The ASMFC, which determines whether each state's seasons, size and bag limits adequately restrain harvest, has assigned states a percentage of the recreational harvest. If any state refuses to adequately control its harvest, NOAA Fisheries can impose (and has imposed) a complete moratorium.

Despite clear signs that summer flounder were overfished, ASMFC and MAFMC managers repeatedly failed to take a precautionary approach throughout the first years of the new century. They optimistically set catch limits at the highest levels allowed and offered little or no room for sampling error or natural fluctuations in recruitment.

Angler catches that surpassed the recreational allocation contributed to the problem in some years, but in 2004 and 2005, significant overfishing occurred even in the face of recreational under-harvest. NOAA's scientists determined that both the historic fishing rates and the fluke-stock assessment could be off by as much as 33 percent (plus or minus). Thus, they recommended that the target fishing rate for summer flounder be adjusted to account for that potential error, without attributing the overage to a particular sector.

Unfortunately, due to pressure from recreational and commercial groups to maintain a higher harvest, managers failed to heed the scientific recommendations and did not account for bias in models that consistently underestimated harvest while overestimating stock size and reproduction.

Last October, New Jersey Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg and Congressman Frank Pallone sent a letter to William Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries, which stated: "Your agency's staff has yet to offer any kind of coherent explanation as to why NMFS [NOAA Fisheries] approved these overly optimistic quotas or why they have suddenly decided to push for such drastic quotas."

However, anyone familiar with the deliberations of the MAFMC could readily provide an answer.

"It was like a ritual dance," recalls Charles Witek, who represented New York on the council from 2002 to 2005. "Every August, when the council set fluke specifications, the same two or three people - sadly, members of the recreational community - would challenge the numbers. Frequently, they accused the council of being a 'rubber stamp,' legally bound to adopt a quota that had a 50 percent likelihood of meeting conservation goals, while arguing that a higher, riskier harvest be permitted."

Thus, the legislative letter to NOAA Fisheries asking why quotas were overly liberal in the past holds a lot of unintended irony, Witek says. The simple reason for the errant quotas: The agency did what the legislators' constituents asked.

Is the Stock Overfished?
To use the NOAA vernacular, the fluke stock is not overfished (the biomass of fluke is more than 50 percent of its target), but overfishing is occurring (the harvest is too high, substantially above the level that would produce maximum sustainable yield).

Angling groups correctly argue that the amount of fish in the water (biomass) now measures twice what it was in 2000. In addition, scientists calculate the spawning-stock biomass at three times what it was that year; hence anglers believe there's no need for imposing draconian measures on the recreational- and commercial-fishing interests.

But that doesn't tell the whole story.

Although the rebuilding plan for summer flounder seems successful so far, it's far from complete. Spawning-stock biomass, while much improved, has recently begun to decline again. It's now just 3 percent above the threshold, signaling an overfished stock.

Recreational and commercial interests and industry groups questioned whether the stock could be rebuilt by 2010, claiming that other non-angling factors affect summer- flounder mortality, particularly natural  predation, competition for food, pollution and the loss of estuarine breeding grounds. The groups asserted that such factors are not considered when managers create quotas, and they questioned whether the current spawning-stock biomass target of 197   million pounds can be achieved.

"You don't have to be a scientist to understand that it's impossible to equate previous abundance with today's while ignoring those factors," notes The Fisherman magazine columnist Al Ristori, "but that's the way NOAA Fisheries operates while managing each species as if it existed all alone in the ocean and had unlimited forage with no competition or predation."

Environmentalists don't dispute that other factors affect mortality rates. However, they argue that the only way councils and agencies can control overall mortality is to reduce fishing harvest.

Many in the angling community further question whether the 197-million-pound target ever really existed naturally. Scientists set the target based on the potential age structure and yield per recruit in a recovered fishery, and supported it by an estimate of the stock size around 1930. However, no solid data exists from that era that would confirm such an estimate.

Angling groups call the rebuilding target and a 10-year time frame "arbitrary," arguing for updated estimates that consider factors such as ecosystem management. Charter and head-boat captains, in particular, stand to lose substantial profits with sharp reductions in the recreational harvest for 2007.

But any deadline could be considered arbitrary, managers and environmentalists say. Delays in rebuilding only reduce and postpone the potential long-term economic gain from completely recovering the stock. They say the striped-bass fishery proves their case. Businesses now reap huge benefits from the recovery measures that some of them opposed in the 1980s.

"Given a 20-year rebuilding deadline [for fluke]," opines Witek, "council members would still select measures with a 50 percent chance of failure, and folks would end up in the same position we're in today, just 10 years further down the road."

NOAA Fisheries' Proposed Rule
Based on the best available science from its Summer Flounder Technical Monitoring Committee, NOAA Fisheries, in July 2006, tentatively suggested a 2007 quota of 5.2 million pounds, just 22 percent of the harvest level set for 2005. However, in response to a public outcry, the agency agreed to review the available data. The review, conducted by NOAA Fisheries' Office of Science and Technology and peer-reviewed by three qualified biologists, employed a different methodology than the monitoring committee.

The review scientists made no change in the fluke-stock status and agreed that overfishing is occurring and that the population is barely halfway to the rebuilding target. They further confirmed that fishing rates must be substantially lowered to rebuild by the original 2010 target date.

The review recommended that the stock condition be assessed not by total stock  biomass, but by using spawning-stock biomass, and it set a target of 197 million pounds for spawning-stock-biomass rebuilding. The review also determined that the stock could be rebuilt by 2010 even at somewhat higher harvest levels, with a 2007 quota of 12.98 million pounds. That harvest would allow a 75 percent chance of meeting the rebuilding goal, while a 14.2-million-pound harvest would allow a 50 percent chance.

Some anglers sighed with relief. But the new numbers still required a 40 percent reduction for 2007 quotas, so angling-industry groups continued to protest. Tom Fote, legislative chair of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, wrote in a mass  e-mail to anglers last October: "Either one of these quotas will have a disastrous effect on the fishing industry in New Jersey and the surrounding states."