Thursday, October 9, 2014
SUMMER FLOUNDER MANAGEMENT: IT'S HARD TO COMPLAIN
Right now, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, working together with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is holding “scoping” hearings and taking public comments on summer flounder management.
Every aspect of management is on the table; the Council and Commission want to hear from as many people as possible before beginning what could be a major amendment to the fishery management plan.
In the past—really, for the entire first decade of this new century—summer flounder managers endured a firestorm of complaints and criticisms after they imposed strict regulations on both commercial and recreational fishermen in an ultimately successful effort to fully rebuild the stock.
Along the way, both federal fisheries managers and federal fisheries laws were subject to constant attacks leveled by commercial fishermen, tackle dealers and for-hire operators in New York and New Jersey (although folks in some other states, most particularly Virginia, also took part in the vituperation).
I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Council for part of that time, and recall the theatrics too well.
There were the orchestrated complaints from the party boat captains, who came back year after year to warn us that they were going to go out of business that season—if they held out so long—if legally mandated restrictions were ever imposed.
There was the self-appointed Long Island “celebrity” with his own TV show, who showed up in the hall before one Council meeting with film crew in tow, shining his lights and his cameras on anyone who might be willing to complain about the way summer flounder were managed (folks without complaints were neither wanted nor recorded), and got very upset when the Council chairman wouldn’t allow him inside to turn the meeting itself into a media circus.
There was the Huntington, New York party boat captain who was escorted out of a Philadelphia meeting by security guards, just for being himself…
Well, you get the idea.
Mention “summer flounder” back then and there were always a few hundred people ready to tell you where the feds had gone wrong and how the fishery should really be managed.
But something strange happened between then and now.
Federal managers—and federal law—turned out to be right.
Summer flounder were fully recovered, and anglers who once fought for the “right” to kill 14-inch fish—fluke so small that you could literally hold them up to the sun and count the bones through their skin—started regularly catching fish so large that each fillet was more than 14 inches long.
Regulations, which once grew steadily more restrictive as the stock struggled to rebuild, began to ease, with legal fish getting smaller and bag limits getting larger.
It wasn’t like the old days, when you could take home a pailful of see-through fluke, but even so anglers in southern states were seeing so many fish that, even under the new relaxed rules, they couldn’t land their entire quota. As a result, some of their “unused” fish were transferred up north, so that those states could ease their regulations, too.
The bitter complaints of the decade before pretty much went away by the time the scoping hearings began this fall.
About the only folks who had much to say were the die-hards who would never accept the need for conservation, and the fishermen—commercial and recreational alike—who, rightly or wrongly, sought a bigger piece of the pie.
To some extent, here in New York, it was the same old story, with fishermen complaining that the science was faulty and led to in regulations that were far too restrictive.
But they also seemed to have a legitimate complaint, when they claimed that the state didn’t get a fair share of the quota. Neighboring Rhode Island is awarded 15.68% of the landings, while its other neighbor, New Jersey (Connecticut, which borders Long Island Sound, has a much smaller fishing industry) is given 16.72%; compared to that, New York’s 7.65% does seem too small.
Of course, the raw percentages only tell part of the story; they don’t reveal why New York’s commercial fishermen get fewer fish.
That dates back a few years, to the days before Rudolph Giuliani made his mark on Manhattan and the Fulton Fish Market was still a “family” business.
Unlike fishermen in other states, those in New York didn’t weigh out their catches right at the dock and sell them to local fish houses. Instead, they just boxed them up and shipped them off to Fulton.
That was OK, as far as it went. The fish got to the market, and the fishermen got paid.
It was how they got paid that produced all the problems.
Because the boys down at Fulton weren’t all that fond of keeping good records that might show up at inconvenient times—say, in the midst of a federal probe (you may recall that Giuliani actually did subpoena such records one day, and probably would have gotten them, too, if the building that they were stored in hadn’t caught fire at just the wrong time.)
So instead of regularly mailing mail the fishermen weighout slips, accompanied by a check for the fish that were bought, they often just sent out a thick wad of cash.
That served the families’ recordkeeping needs pretty well, and the fishermen liked it too, particularly when it came time to fill out their tax returns.
But when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council decided to divvy up summer flounder among the states, and used catch history as the criteria, it posed a bit of a problem for New York’s commercials, because the catch records just weren’t there.
As a result, they got shortchanged on the quota.
They probably could have reconstructed the records, but that might have required new tax returns, too…
So they had some grounds to complain.
They’ve long sat high in the catbird’s seat, enjoying some of the highest recreational and commercial quotas on the coast; now, like spoiled four-year-olds, they get upset at the thought of sharing with others.
Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, noted that
“We have a likelihood of getting picked to death. A lot of people are somewhat jealous of the quotas we have. Massachusetts is looking in the southern direction for numerous fish, including this one.”
Jim Lovgren, a long-time commercial fishermen who I often spoke with back when I sat on the Council put it more tersely, although he named a different adversary, saying
“New York is out to steal your fish.”
Of course, there’s some of the old “the science is bad and the law is no good” rhetoric still being spouted down there too, although, in New Jersey, it usually comes from the recreational side.
Ray Bogan, an attorney who frequently represents the for-hire industry (yes, he’s part of the same extended family that owns all of those party boats) made the same sort of noises that he’s been making for nearly two decades, calling federal fisheries law “onerous and punitive legislation,” and saying
“The only two things that we can verify from the current management system is a rebuilt stock and the destruction of the traditional fishery.”
Of course, we wouldn’t have “a rebuilt stock” without “the current management system,” and it’s pretty easy to argue that “the destruction of the traditional fishery” that depleted the summer flounder stock in the first place isn’t a bad thing.
Still, it’s nice to see that nothing has changed since the days when I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, and he used to threaten to “hold [us] accountable” if we voted for management measures that the staff biologists told us were good, but the party boat folks didn’t like.
Because people like Bogan and some of his clan might have complained about the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and whined about how Magnuson-mandated fluke regulations were going to put them out of business, but it’s hard to deny that those regulations allowed the population to fully rebuild. Today, we’re all reaping the benefits.
Anglers are generally happy and bringing enough fish home to keep most of them satisfied, although a few hungries still gave over their shoulder at days gone forever and mourn that they used to kill more.
The for-hire boats are carrying well.
And the commercial boats are landing fish and making good money, even if the New York folks want a bigger share of the catch, and their counterparts in New Jersey are afraid that they’ll get it.
With things going that well, we shouldn’t be surprised that the scoping hearings didn’t create more of a stir.
Summer flounder are one of the best-managed stocks on the coast, thanks to the Magnuson Act and managers who didn’t wilt under fire and had the courage to make the tough calls.
If other managers, and other management councils, follow their example, pretty soon folks will have a hard time complaining about other stocks, too…