Thursday, March 20, 2014


Quoting—or misquoting—Rodney Dangerfield is something of a cliché.  But the fact is, winter flounder get no respect.

Maybe that’s because they’re flat and small, cryptically colored with funny, bulging eyes.  They aren’t pretty, like marlin.  They’re don’t frighten, like sharks.  And they lack the freight-train strength and presence of bluefin tuna.

Flounder don’t jump like tarpon or run like bonefish, and their mouths are so small and toothless that they can’t even give you a nip if you’re careless removing a hook.

Worse than that, they taste good, and they used to be so abundant that no one ever believed that they could ever disappear.

So, somehow, winter flounder got lost in the management process, and they’re still looking for a guide to help them back to their bay-bottom homes.

By historical standards, we’re already well into flounder season.  Twenty or twenty-five years ago, my boat would have been in the water by now.  I would have been flounder fishing this weekend.

St. Patrick’s Day was the unofficial start of the season, although a few of the party boats on the South Shore of Long Island started fishing a couple of weeks sooner.  So long as there was no ice on the bay, a handful of anglers would catch flounder all winter.

We used to take flounders for granted.  Fishermen would go out with a feed sack, a five-gallon pail or bushel basket, and often filled it before they went home.  Mostly, they intended to eat the fish, although sometimes when they had more than they wanted to clean, they tried to give some away; if no people were interested, the tomatoes always appreciated some additional fertilizer.

There were no bag or size limits back then.  I knew one fisherman who kept every fish that he caught, claiming that the “sweet little ones” fried up into “potato chips” that tasted better than the big fish.  I knew another who got very offended if anyone told him that he should toss the small fish back and not bury them in his garden.

Fishery managers saw the signs that flounder were starting to slide downhill, but were slow to respond.  I first got involved in fisheries issues when the striped bass collapsed back in the ‘70s, but by 1980, I was working on flounder, too.  That’s when I went to a hearing held somewhere in Connecticut, when that state was proposing its first-ever size limit on flatfish.  It was ridiculously low—something like 7 or 8 inches—but the folks from the tackle shops showed up to oppose it, afraid that putting any restrictions  on flounder at all might mean that anglers who wanted to keep the “sweet little ones” wouldn’t buy quite so many worms, hooks or sinkers.

It’s now about 35 years later, and nothing has really changed, except that today there are a lot fewer flounder.

The poor fish just can’t catch a break.

It didn’t help that, in federal waters, they were managed by the New England Fishery Management Council, which is largely peopled by the commercial fishing industry and still seems to believe that no fish should ever die of—or even reach—old age.  For 20 years after the Magnuson Act’s passage, the folks up in New England used the letter of the law—which then justified overfishing because of “economic factors”—to drive down populations offshore at the same time that few states did anything to conserve the fish on their inshore spawning grounds.

The passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which prohibited all overfishing and required that stocks be timely rebuilt regardless of economic impact, seemed to hold out some hope for the flounder.  But the folks up in New England don’t give up easily.  They couldn’t explicitly allow overfishing any more, but they could pretend to solve problems by imposing “input controls”—restrictions on how many days a boat could fish, or how many boats could participate in a particular fishery—while avoiding the hard poundage quotas that were the only certain way to control the kill.  So the New England Council continued to reign over the flounder’s demise while adopting sham rebuilding plans that never actually did any good.

Inshore, states tried to step into the breach, but they received a lot of pushback from the fishing industry.  I moved from Connecticut to New York in ‘83, but flounder didn’t fare well anywhere.  In 1988, New York adopted its first recreational bag and size limits for winter flounder; however, due to resistance from the tackle shop and party boat owners, the size limit was so small and the bag limit so large that they did little to protect the fish.  The  rules did protect the incomes of the angling industry, which admitted that flounder were waning, but argued that their customers must have the “perception” that they could enjoy a “big day”—that is, a big kill—or they wouldn’t want to fish any more.

So the regulations weren’t particularly effective, and New York anglers killed over 4.8 million flounder that year.

In 1993, the passage of the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cooperative Management Act gave the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission authority to manage winter flounder (and a number of other species) in state waters.  The ASMFC fishery management plan in force at the time estimated that between 55 and 65 percent of the flounder population was killed by recreational and commercial fishermen each year.  It eventually introduced measures intended to reduce that kill. 

I always held a soft spot in my heart for winter flounder, so in the late ‘90s I became a member of ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel.

I was at ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board meeting in the winter of ’99, when it was clear that too many fish were being killed and that, pursuant to the management plan, the states had to adopt more restrictive regulations.  And I was there when that management board voted—unanimously—that the states wouldn’t have to comply with the harvest cuts in the management plan, supposedly because the New England Council wasn’t cutting harvest and the management board thought that state and federal rules should be coordinated.

Of course, when a completely collapsed stock caused the feds to impose a moratorium a few years later, coordinated management didn’t seem so important.  ASMFC tightened regulations, did not impose a similar ban on landings, despite the near-disappearance of inshore spawning populations.

After all, no one cared about winter flounder, so why not continue the kill?

And it truly seemed that no one at all cared about flounder,  Even the national conservation groups, who had no problem suing the National Marine Fisheries Service over summer flounder and tilefish, river herring and red snapper, collectively shrugged when, a year or so ago, NMFS suddenly pushed the rebuilding deadline back another ten years.  The fact that the flounder stock was in such dire straits that it couldn’t be rebuilt by the original deadline might—if you stretched the point—justify the extension.  But it certainly didn’t justify reopening the fishery and giving a 5,000 pound trip limit to the groundfish boats when the stock is 84% smaller than it is supposed to be.

As I said, winter flounder get no respect.  It was like the conservation folks didn’t even notice.

But if the big conservation groups didn’t notice the latest nail hammered into the flounder’s coffin, ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board certainly did.  When the feds imposed a moratorium, coordinated management might not have mattered, but when the feds opened up the fishery offshore, well, it was time to kill more fish in the bays.

ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel disagreed; it unanimously recommended a moratorium.  ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Technical Committee advised that the southern stock was at or close to its historic lows, and presented data to prove it (  But this was ASMFC, after all, where overfished stocks and fishery science may be safely ignored.  So, as I described in a post last February, the Management Board decided to extend the recreational season from 60 days to 10 full months.

Next it was up to the states to figure out what to do.

Here in New York, the issue came up at the March 18 meeting of the Marine Resources Advisory Council.  A biologist from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, who does most of the agency’s winter flounder work, described the recent events at ASMFC, and noted that the decision to extend the season “caught the Technical Committee by surprise” because such decision

“had nothing to with stock health and everything to do with economics and politics.”
Which, of course, is true of a lot of decisions—almost certainly most decisions—made at ASMFC.

It was probably inevitable that the majority of the audience at the Advisory Council meeting, which was largely composed of party and charter boat operators, supported the longer season.  That’s what those folks usually do.  And it’s not surprising that all but one of the commercial and recreational fishing industry representatives on the Advisory Council also supported the increased kill.  Because that’s what those folks normally do.

And, after all, this was winter flounder, a fish that they don’t respect.

I hope that the state feels differently.

It’s too early to tell.  But the Chief of the DEC’s Marine Bureau made it clear that, if the agency does propose an extended season, it won’t do so in “emergency regulations” issued without public comment.  Instead, any change in the regulations will be made through the normal rulemaking process.  That would take some time, perhaps enough time to get the flounder safely through this season.

After that, who knows?  There are good people at DEC, and they’ve followed the science before.  There is reason, at least, to hope.

I went into the Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting prepared to fight for the flounder, but I feared that it was a hopeless cause.  I came out saying “At least I didn’t lose today.  For now, the season won’t change.”

And as any fisheries advocate knows, when you can say that, it’s almost like a win.

But that isn’t the way the flounder story should end.  It should end with real protection for a fish that desperately needs it.

And it’s not the way that the fisheries management story should end.  It should end with real protections in place for all of our fish.  We shouldn’t be where we are now, with the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries trying to weaken federal fishing laws and hand management of important fisheries over to the states, so that those industries may enjoy “extensive economic benefits” at the expense of the resource.

For if they succeed in achieving those goals, all of our fish may end up like winter flounder.

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