Sunday, February 9, 2014

WINTER FLOUNDER: LAST TUESDAY'S TRAVESTY AT ASMFC

Do you remember fishing for winter flounder?

If someone said that I’d be asking that question half a lifetime ago, I would have called them a liar.  Flounder were a year-long fishery then; you could catch them in the winter if the bay was ice-free, and you could find enough for dinner near the inlets when the summer sun was high.

They were a fixture of my childhood.  When I was eight or nine years old, on days like Good Friday when we didn’t have school, a bunch of us would meet at one of the boatyards.  We weren’t supposed to be there, but the yard hands would look the other way as we wandered out onto the finger piers to catch flounder and tomcod off the docks.  

From the time that our boat went into the water in the spring until it came out around the first of November, my father, mother and I spent most of our Sundays fishing for flounder—and whatever else might bite, but mostly for flounder—off the western Connecticut shore.

As I grew older, the flounder were always there.  No spring break from college was complete without a trip to the town beach, where I’d toss out a line and catch the flounder that swarmed just a dozen yards from shore.

When I was in law school, and met the woman who I would eventually marry, it turned out that flounder were one of the many things that we had in common.  Her grandfather loved to fish, and had taken her flounder fishing on party boats since she was a little girl.  She told me stories of fishing through February snow in search of the season’s first flatfish, and I suspect that such early adventures explain how she managed to put up with my antics for the past 30+ years.

For many years, we celebrated the coming of spring with a dinner of asparagus fresh from our garden and flounder fresh from the bay.  It was a sort of affirmation that despite all of the things that can happen over the course of the year, winter was over and the world was still spinning as it should.

But that ended quite a few years ago.

The flounder that once seemed to pave the bottom of every bay and estuary between Delaware Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence have grown scarce.  Those that make up what biologists call the “southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock,” found in all the waters south of Cape Cod, are particularly troubled.

Biologists started to notice back in the ‘80s.  The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted management plans and recommended management measures that would supposedly rebuild the stock.

Unfortunately, like so many other measures adopted by ASMFC, they always sought to do too little, too late, and needed restrictions were always watered down to appease the commercial and recreational fishing industries, which insisted on squeezing the last possible dollar out of the stock before it finally collapsed.

Because flounder are the first inshore fish to become active in the spring—for many years, St. Patrick’s Day was the traditional start of the season—and flounder fishermen are the first anglers to begin drifting into tackle shops as the weather starts to warm, representatives of the tackle dealers and the party boat fleets fought hard to keep the seasons long, the size limits short and the bag limits high.

Studies done by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation shortly after the Second World War recorded harvests that would be considered unsustainable today.  When New York first proposed to restrict recreational landings in the late 1980s, party boat owners fought reasonable bag limits, arguing that their customers would stop coming unless they had the “perception” that they could still make a big kill.

Ten years later, it was clear that the flounder was in pretty serious trouble.  By then, I was a member of ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel.  It is a discouraging job; the very concept of flounder conservation seems anathema to decision makers at the Commission.  

I attended ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board meeting in February 1999 when, in order to end overfishing, every state between Massachusetts and Delaware would be forced to cut harvest.  The Management Board responded decisively.  In a unanimous vote, it suspended enforcement of the management plan's compliance measures.  That way, states could keep their old regulations, and fishermen could keep overfishing. 

It was one of those things that could only happen at ASMFC.

The flounder stock responded in a predictable manner.  It crashed.  The fish that once seemed to line the bottom of every bay, sound and creek on the coast all but disappeared.

Sometimes, you hear people use the term “last buffalo hunt” to describe what is happening to fisheries.  Usually, they use it to describe the incessant overfishing of charismatic, buffalo-sized animals such as bluefin tuna.  But considering how ubiquitous the buffalo used to be, and how far its numbers fell, the real “last buffalo hunt” is all about winter flounder.

In 1985, anglers took home about 16.3 million winter flounder.  Ten years later, that number had fallen by an order of magnitude, to 1.4 million.  Ten years after that, recreational landings fell by another order of magnitude, to just 0.175 million fish—about 1% of what was harvested 20 years earlier.

In 2009, responding to a 91% reduction in the spawning stock, the National Marine Fisheries Service prohibited landings of southern stock flounder caught in federal waters.  However, the ASMFC commissioners could not bear the thought of completely halting the kill.  Although the Winter Flounder Advisory Panel unanimously favored a moratorium, the Management Board set a recreational bag limit of two fish, a size limit of twelve inches, and a season sixty days.  A commercial trip limit of 50 pounds was also allowed. 

So by 2013, recreational harvest had fallen by another two-thirds, to less than 0.05 million pounds.
The southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock was in deep trouble.  Research done at New York’s Stony Brook University found that abundance has fallen so low that flounder are now threatened by inbreeding (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0066126).  ASMFC’s own Stock Status Overview (http://www.asmfc.org/files/fisheriesMgmt/asmfcStockStatusPacket.pdf) shows the stock on a “depleted” trend, overfished and at just 16% of the spawning stock target.
In an effort to convert inevitable dead discards into harvest, and incidentally provide some economic relief to New England groundfishermen, the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to permit some landings of southern stock winter flounder.
That was all ASMFC needed to know.  Last Tuesday, its Winter Flounder Management Board ignored its Advisory Panel, its Technical Committee and ASMFC’s own evaluation of the status of the stock, and voted to increase the kill of southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder by quintupling the length of the recreational season.
State seasons which once ran from April 1 through May 30 may now run from March 1 through December 31.  Thanks to ASMFC, anglers will now be able to kill flounder while they’re spawning, after they’re done spawning, and when they bunch up in at the inlets before leaving the bay.  They’ll be able to kill the resident fish during the summer when they are congregated in their cool-water havens.  And they’ll be able to kill the migrant fish as they return in the fall, before they can spawn again.
Apparently, the Management Board felt that if people could kill the dwindling stocks of flounder on the offshore grounds, anglers fishing inshore waters should be able to kill them off, too.
On the other hand, a motion directing the Technical Committee to examine the possible benefits of a moratorium was resoundingly rejected.

Management Board?  Perhaps “Extermination Board” would be a better title.  Because the only thing that it’s “managing” right now is the southern stock’s final demise.

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