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January 30, 2007

Fluke and the Fate of Fishing

How a Small Flatfish May Change National Management Priorities

Council and Commission Disagree
In August 2006, the MAFMC, apparently concerned with the socioeconomic impacts of a reduced 2007 quota, recommended that 19.9 million pounds of summer flounder be harvested this year, despite a final      recommendation from the monitoring committee of 13.88 million pounds. While such a quota would continue rebuilding stocks, it wouldn't result in a 50 percent probability of meeting the 2010 rebuilding target. According to Jessica Coakley, coordinator for the council's fluke-management plan, the higher quota would extend the rebuilding period another 10 years, to 2020.

The ASMFC met a week later. Angling groups put immense pressure on commissioners to ratify the MAFMC's 19.9-million-pound quota, and the commissioners were initially inclined to do so. However, NOAA Fisheries told the board that setting the higher quota would lead to a reduction in federal waters that would adversely affect commercial fishermen with federal permits. Thus, before the panel could  consider the proposal, the ASMFC's Summer Flounder Management Board reconsidered its recommendation.

Instead, two other options that would permit rebuilding by 2010 reached the commission's table, but both plans failed. Thus, the ASMFC effectively deferred action on the matter until a joint meeting with the MAFMC could be conducted in December. (See Fisheries Panels Finally Agree, p. 118.) NOAA Fisheries, determined to avoid stalemate, initiated the rule-making process for a 12.98-million-pound quota.

However, Congress reauthorized Magnuson before that rule could proceed and before the council/commission joint meeting. NOAA Fisheries quickly calculated a new quota based on the extension. The agency determined it could increase its original 2007 harvest estimate from 12.98 million pounds to 17.1 million pounds with a 75 percent probability of meeting the fishing-mortality target.

 The summer-flounder quotas for the next three years are expected to be:
• 17.1 million pounds in 2007
• 19.6 million pounds in 2008
• 22.7 million pounds in 2009

While the new figures offer some relief to anglers, even the 2009 quota falls short of the 23.6-million-pound harvest permitted in 2006. The quotas also do not fix the strong objection of angling-industry groups to the target spawning-stock biomass of 197 million pounds. They feel if the target were lower, and rebuilding less of an issue, the quota could be much higher.

The ASMFC has agreed to order peer review of the stock assessment, in part to determine whether the current target is justifiable. Federal lawmakers from the mid-Atlantic region said they still want to ease the regulatory burden on the fishing industry. Thus, it seems, the battle to one day amend the Sustainable Fisheries Act, allowing more flexibility in the rebuilding target, may be far from over.

Angling Effects
How the proposed cutbacks translate into fluke regulations for next summer remained to be determined at press time. State allocations are based on the share of the total recreational harvest that the state caught in 1998, the last year everyone fished under the same regulations. The 1998 angler catch rate comes from Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS) data.

Scientists agree that MRFSS can be unreliable, and managers have discussed replacing the current state-by-state allocation with a coastwide approach to managing the fishery. During the joint commission/council meeting in December, both bodies rejected an attempt to end current allocation practices, though they agreed to consider amending the manner in which the allocation is made. Any potential changes will not affect the 2007 season.

Anglers and commercial fishermen who want to take more fish will attack whatever regulations result from the quota decision. To many, the situation seems all too reminiscent of the groundfish dilemma in New England.

"If managers had employed a more risk-averse approach earlier in the rebuilding process, we would be facing much less severe restrictions now," says Sherman Baynard, vice chairman of the CCA National Government Relations Committee. "Managers don't seem ready to accept that lesson, although by implementing the needed reduction now, all the evidence suggests that in six years, we should enjoy the benefits of a fully recovered fishery."

In addition to his freelance writing and photography, Capt. John McMurray is currently the director of grants programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York, which has distributed more than $20 million in conservation grants since 1982, much of it directly targeted for protection of marine fish and habitat. He also sits as the conservation chair of the Professional Flyfishing and Light Tackle Guides Association of New York. You can contact John at