Thursday, April 9, 2015


I was reading through the fishing news last weekend, when I came across an article in that began with the following line:

“It’s unbelievably late, but Bob Matthews at Fisherman’s Den in  Belmar Marina finally saw his first winter flounder on Good Friday.”
And yes, that was down in New Jersey, where flounder season normally starts a few weeks before it begins here in New York.

That’s not the legal winter flounder season I’m referring to—the season that by ASMFC mandate can’t begin before March 1, and New York doesn’t open until a month later—but what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “natural” season, the time when flounder start getting active and an angler could expect to catch them, if regulations did not intervene.

Here on the South Shore of Long Island, it used to start early in March, with a few party boats out of Captree State Park catching their first fish sometime during the first weekend in March.  A couple of weeks later, St. Patrick’s Day—March 17—was the much-heralded, if unofficial, start of the season, with all of the party boats sailing and a lot of private boats joining them out on the flats, where the water had started to warm.

By April, back in the day, anglers brought flounders home by the literal bucketful.  To our south, on the New Jersey shore, things started up a couple of weeks sooner, but unfurled about the same way.

So to see a New Jersey column headlined, in man-bites-dog style, 

“First Legal Flounder at Belmar”
in early April, and to follow up with a story about just one fish, is more than a bit disconcerting.

Unfortunately, that story also tells us more than we’d like to know about where winter flounder, the leading candidate for worst-managed fish on our coast, is heading.

National Marine Fisheries Service data tells us that thirty years ago, in 1984, New York anglers took home well over 7 million winter flounder; in New Jersey, over 3 million flounder were landed that year.  However, the fishery has since collapsed so badly since then that New York’s 2014 landings were a mere 4 thousand fish, while New Jersey managed about 8 thousand.

For those who care about numbers, New York’s 2014 recreational winter flounder landings were a whopping six-hundredths of one percent (0.06%) of what they were three decades before; New Jersey’s landings fell nearly as badly, with last year’s total about one-quarter of one percent (0.25%) of what they were in 1984.

But when you talk to some anglers—or, more precisely, to some angling businesses—they act as if nothing is wrong.

The website Fishing Reports Now, on April 8, included some New Jersey reports that said things such as

“Shark River’s winter flounder fishing remained slow.  Bob from Fishermen’s Den [yes, the same Fishermen’s Den which reported the catch of just one winter flounder] wrote in an e-mail ‘I still have no answers’…”

“Winter flounder fishing was just a pick at different waters, for unknown reasons.  Dennis didn’t know whether few flounder migrated into the waters last fall, because of warm waters and weather then, or whether something else was the reason.”
Here’s an “answer” for you, Fishermen’s Den:  There just aren’t many flounder left in the bays.  Too many bucketfuls have already gone home.

And Dennis, here’s a “reason” for you:  Too much overfishing, for too many years, has finally taken its toll.

It’s time to stop denying reality, and admit that the flounder are gone.

But in the end, it’s hard to blame the guys in the shops without also placing a heap of blame on the regulators’ shoulders.

Winter flounder have the misfortune to be jointly managed by the New England Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  It would difficult to find two management bodies anywhere in the nation which have a combined record anywhere near as dismal when it comes to rebuilding and conserving fish populations.  

Both have historically elevated short-term socioeconomic considerations far above the long-term sustainability of fish populations, and today both the fish and the fishermen are paying the price.

It finally looked as if NMFS’ Northeast Regional Director Pat Kurkul was on the right path when she imposed a landings moratorium on the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder back in 2010, but her good work was later undone by her successor, John Bullard, who decided in 2013 that, since winter flounder would not be rebuilt by the original 2014 deadline, it was OK to restart the 10-year rebuilding from scratch and initiate a new rebuilding plan that allowed a substantial harvest.

The fact that such a restart was a likely violation of the rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and rendered Magnuson’s 10-year rebuilding deadline effectively meaningless, was apparently either missed or ignored by both NMFS and the often-litigious conservation groups that are normally the last line of defense for abused marine resources.

ASMFC, however, was right on the ball.  It never matched the federal closure, or even imposed capped the overall landings.  Instead, it merely imposed some new harvest restrictions that still allowed the stock to decline.  So when NMFS reopened the federal season, ASMFC was ready and eager to increase anglers' kill.  It quickly authorized states to extend the season length fivefold, from sixty days to ten full months.

Most states jumped on the bandwagon, although at least in Rhode Island’s, most of the traditional flounder waters—Narragansett Bay, along with Potter and Point Judith ponds—were already completely closed to flounder harvest, minimizing the impact of the longer season.

Only in New York did managers try to take a responsible tack, with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Bureau maintaining the 60-day season long after it was abandoned by other states.

Unfortunately, others were far less responsible, and representatives of the state’s for-hire fleet, as well as many tackle shops, ignorant or uncaring—most likely the latter—of the flounder’s plight pressured the agency to extend the season so that, on a good day, some lucky New Yorker might gain celebrity by catching one flounder, too.

It’s not clear how things will work out.

All of the science dictates against an extension—and in favor of a full closure, not just the status quo.

The Marine Bureau folks tend to follow the science, and try to do the right thing.  On the other hand, they have their bosses, and elected officials have long made a good living by doing what businesses ask.

National conservation groups have belatedly discovered the flounder, and rallied to the flatfish’s cause.  If the state decides to do the wrong thing, there’s a good chance that those folks will sue.

Myself, I hope that’s not needed.  I’d like to see the DEC act as responsibly as they did with striped bass, and withdraw the proposed regulation. 

Whatever the agency decides, the winter flounder’s recovery, if it is even to have one, will be slow, painful and easily derailed.  Managers will have to dedicate a lot of time and resources to the effort if they want to have any chance of seeing their grandkids—yes, it’s going to take at least that long—catch a half-dozen flounder off some dock in the spring.

Or they can just give the industry what it asked for, an empty spring bay like the one in New Jersey, where someone catching one flounder makes headlines.

And, in the end, they won’t even have that.

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