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January 30, 2007

Fluke and the Fate of Fishing

How a Small Flatfish May Change National Management Priorities

Glamour game fish such as bluefin tuna and striped bass usually grab East Coast headlines. But right now, a humble flatfish has taken the spotlight, and it just may impact the way our nation manages marine resources for the next decade.

High demand and ready accessibility subject the summer flounder, or fluke, to substantial commercial- and recreational-fishing pressure from Massachusetts to North Carolina. In recent years, such pressure has led to overfishing.  

Recognizing that many of our nation's fisheries, including fluke, were in decline, Congress mandated in 1996 that fishery managers rebuild depleted species in a timelier manner. For fluke, that ignited a 10-year battle among managers, anglers and commercial fishermen, who seesawed over quotas, bag limits and size limits, and questioned each other's theories, science and integrity in sometimes vicious debates and lawsuits.

Then, in July 2006, a fluke stock assessment unexpectedly called for reducing the 2007 harvest by up to 80 percent. At the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives scheduled a vote to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act - the same federal fisheries law amended 10 years earlier to force managers to quickly fix stocks such as fluke.

Those who have long advocated removing the most important conservation provisions from the act saw the summer-flounder issue as a promising vehicle to gain public support. Naturally, environmental groups and conservationists adamantly opposed gutting the law. Congress initially tabled the reauthorization because of the November elections, but revived the issue in early December and quickly passed a bill before adjourning. Included in the bill is a three-year extension of the fluke-rebuilding timeframe. Many involved breathed a sigh of relief. But any respite will be brief because the fight continues.

How this Crisis Happened
Lightly regulated commercial and recreational fishing collapsed the summer-flounder stock by the late 1980s. A few rules, implemented in the late '80s, proved too little, too late and failed to halt the decline.

In 1996, Congress approved the Sustainable Fisheries Act - an amendment to Magnuson - which set a firm 10-year deadline for rebuilding overfished stocks nationwide. In 1998, federal fishery managers adopted an amendment to the summer-flounder management plan to meet the act's requirements. But the amendment compromised the rebuilding plan to address socioeconomic impacts on fishermen. As a result, when managers set the 1999 quota, it only had an 18 percent chance of success.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (a New York City-based environmental group) sued, demanding that the rebuilding plan have a reasonable chance of successfully meeting the 10-year deadline. The court handed down a landmark decision in 2000 that required managing agencies to set quotas with at least a 50 percent chance of reaching their target within 10 years.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA Fisheries] determined that the fluke stock could be rebuilt in 10 years simply by halting overfishing, which would require them to take steps - for the first time - that would seriously affect recreational harvest.

Loud protests from the recreational-fishing industry ensued, but federal managers prevailed, setting meaningful size and bag limits in 2000. Until recently, those limits appeared to be working; however, the recovery seems to have stalled.

Scientists say significant overfishing is still occurring, and the most recent assessment showed that stock size may have declined. Current studies place the summer-flounder population at only 53 percent of its fully restored level.  At the same time, spawning success also nose-dived; 2005 proved the second-worst spawning year on record.  At current fishing rates, not enough juvenile fluke survive for the population to rebound by a 2010 target date.

Scientists believe that substantial harvest reductions must be imposed for fluke to recover. While some question the data leading to that conclusion, it has twice been peer-reviewed by panels of experts, and critics have been unable to reference any similarly reviewed study supporting their position. The data represents the best available science that must, by law, underlie any decision made by NOAA Fisheries.