Sunday, February 1, 2015


Regular readers of this blog know that I have a lot of respect for professional fisheries scientists.  On the whole, they are dedicated, underpaid, overworked public servants who generally try to do the right thing.

On the state level, where there is no Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to set legal standards and guidance, fisheries managers often find themselves sandwiched between biological and political realities, with the former demanding conservative approaches that assure the long-term health of state fisheries, while the latter demands that fish stocks be managed for maximum exploitation to assure the short-term profit of those having the ear of elected officials.

And since one of those elected officials is usually the fisheries managers’ boss, that means that politics win over science a good part of the time.

Even so, sometimes we come across management decisions that are so divorced from the realities that we see on the water that we have to wonder just how they were made.

Consider “Fish X”.

“Fish X” is a real species that lives in our waters here in New York.  I’m not naming it just yet because, in this context, it’s more than a fish, but a greater symbol of how things ought not to be done.  Thus, it has relevance to all of us at one point or another, and I don’t want to turn off any readers—who are perhaps most of my readers—who fish in those waters where Fish X never swam.

Fish X was once one of the most popular and abundant recreational fish in New York.  Thirty years ago, anglers took home almost 6.8 million pounds of them.  However, Fish X has since fallen on hard times, and only 0.03 million pounds were landed last year; the recreational harvest has fallen by more than 99 percent.

And that’s because the population has just fallen through the floor.  

The number of fish has fallen so far that researchers at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science have found that inbreeding now threatens the population, and that they can now estimate the number of Fish X in New York’s bays by examining the genomes of a few individuals that are caught there.

To make matters worse, other research done at Stony Brook suggests that the overall population of Fish X is composed of two subpopulations, one of which migrates to deeper ocean waters, and one of which remains inside coastal bays during the summer and may be at risk of extirpation.  A relevant paper written by scientists at the university recognizes the vulnerability of such resident fish and notes that

Resolving the stock structure and migratory behavior of Long Island [Fish X] is crucial to determine the impacts of local harvest on the sustainability of the species. If resident [Fish X] represent a separate genetic population, the seasonally more abundant dispersive population may mask a long-term decline in resident [Fish X] that once supported Long Island fisheries and may eventually lead to extirpation of residents. This outcome would require management of each population separately based on population-specific life history variables. On the other hand, if resident and dispersive [Fish X] are contingents within a single genetically distinct population that exhibit partial migration, the relative impact of harvest on resident and dispersive individuals can be complex. Management would need to consider the relative abundance of each contingent through habitat or other conservation efforts aimed at a specific contingent.  [emphasis added]”
New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation knows that Fish X is in dire straits. 

“Nearly all the survey indices are near time-series lows.  The [Technical Committee] concludes that the [Fish X] biomass remains near time-series low.  Young of year indices generally remain low, although a few indices have improved in recent years.  Rebuilding is likely to be slow (if at all) especially if recruitment remains poor…”

“The status of these species is known and conservation action is urgent in the next ten years.  These species are declining and must receive timely management intervention or they are likely to reach critical population levels in New York.  [emphasis added]”
Fish X is a part of that list.

Thus it seems inexplicable that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation would move to increase the number of Fish X that are killed by anglers each year, and would open the fishing season in a way that would directly jeopardize the vulnerable resident fish and increase the likelihood that they would be extirpated.

Yet that is just what the agency is planning to do.

In a notice of proposed rulemaking released just last week, the State of New York announced that it would be extending the fishing season for Fish X, which currently runs for just 60 days in the spring, to a full 10 months.  For much of that added time—perhaps mid-June through early October—all of the angling pressure would fall on the few remnant resident fish, since the larger body of migratory individuals would be out of reach in deep ocean waters.

It doesn’t seem to make any sense, although the state tries to justify its actions by saying

These regulations are necessary for New York to maximize [Fish X] fishing opportunities for its marine recreational anglers while remaining in compliance with the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) adopted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The proposed rule will extend the current 60 day open season (April 1 - May 30) to 306 days (March 1 - December 31) without altering the current 12 inch minimum size limit or the 2 fish possession limit. This regulatory change will provide New York marine recreational anglers with similar access to [Fish X] as anglers in NY's neighboring states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. The proposed season will provide additional fishing opportunities during periods of the year when there are few other species to fish for. It is hoped that these relaxed regulations will increase interest and fishing activity, resulting in economic benefits to a number of different types of associated businesses.”
You might have noted that the health of the Fish X stock was never mentioned, not even once.  It was all about business, and fishing opportunities for a species that, in these times, is not even there.  (I can’t go on without noting that the “when there are few other species to fish for” line is purest fiction, as the summer and fall months, which account for most of the extension, are when New York’s anglers enjoy their waters’ greatest abundance.)

The poor health of the stock is considered briefly when the DEC discusses closing the Fish X season altogether, although it was quickly dismissed in comments that said

Some stakeholders have said that the [Fish X] fishery should be closed or more restrictive than it is currently managed to eliminate fishing mortality on these fish. However, neighboring states have already decided to extend the [Fish X] season. This alternative was rejected because such a closure would deny New York State anglers fishing opportunities made available to anglers in neighboring states and because a closure may adversely impact the incomes of New York State recreational fishery businesses.
Not too much mention of how many “fishing opportunities” New York anglers might have or how good “recreational fishery businesses” would do if Fish X was wiped out, but that doesn’t seem to matter to folks.  At the March 2014 meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, representatives of the recreational fishing industry strongly endorsed an increased kill, as always elevating short-term profits over the long-term health of the stock

No, it doesn’t make any sense, but it is being done nonetheless.

And so it is probably time to end the charade.  If you live in New York, if you know me personally or if you have read this blog for very long—or if you clicked on one of the hyperlinks above—you know that “Fish X” is New York’s winter flounder.  

And knowing that, you realize that the proposal to extend the season makes no sense at all.

Perhaps the best explanation comes from an e-mail that was forwarded to me soon after the proposed rule became public.  It was written by an angler in Moriches Bay (I won’t mention his name), who may have finally figured out how and why fishery management decisions such as this one are made. 

He noted that

Now we can catch no flounder for 306 days rather than just for 60 days.  (The last one being caught in Moriches bay in February 1992 by a bayman towing a scallop dredge in an uncertified area. The uncaring lout carried that fish around to all the local seedy gin mills, comparing himself to the last of the buffalo hunters and trying to pick up loose women…)
“Anyway, being a master of several manly sports, namely hunting, I cleverly figured out why fisheries managers would expand a season on a species of fish nearly extinct on Long Island. Let me slowly explain it to you so that you may possibly grasp this ingenious management concept.
“Every fall, happy little ducks migrate south from the North Pole, after saying goodbye to Santa to spend their winters in the relatively warm southern climes of New England and Long Island. These gullible naive birds believe they have hit the duck lottery coming to our shores eating everything in sight. Heck, a flock of geese was seen trying to eat a local golf course the other day. Their wanton feeding gets them killed off by local hunters. (I actually got one last week after a season of trying, their numbers really not much more than flounders but that's not the point.) The ducks are stupid when they get here, and smarten up as the season progresses as sportsman send lead projectiles at them and try to shoot their asses off.
“Now take flounder. The fish that sees those flounder rigs in the early season is young, dumb, and full of milt. Eager to take a bait. This is dangerous to the species. Sometimes they swarm to the chum slick. During one tide twenty years ago I spotted three in a span of four hours! 
"With the proliferation of party boats on Moriches bay it has been determined with telemetry studies the biggest threat to flounder is actually not by catching but by head injury. Frustrated fisherman violently jigging their rods, rumored to work by flounder fisherman 100 years ago, send lead weights crashing to the bottom in an effort to get the flounders attention. These inexperienced flounder swim up to these boats are many are simply knocked unconscious and eaten by crabs or seals.
“The current sixty day season is too short for the flounders little brain to register that chums slicks mean missiles of death and flying corn beads. Now 306 days of pure mayhem, party boats throwing clams, mussels, corn and thousands of hours of sports pounding the bottom with lead weights will indoctrinate even the dumbest flounder to equate dancing corn beads and twister tails with death from above and will most surely save the species from imminent destruction. A rather brilliant strategy by fisheries managers that may even convince the most skeptical amongst us…”
I have to admit that it makes more sense than any of the reasons that I’ve heard coming out of ASMFC, MRAC or the DEC.

Which probably tells us all that we need to know about the proposal.


If the effort to extend New York’s winter flounder season disgusts you as much as it does me, please make a comment to the Department of Environmental Conservation and tell them so.  Comments should be sent to

Stephen W. Heins
205 North Belle Mead Road, Suite 1
East Setauket, NY 11733

I’d really thank you if you did.


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