Monday, December 26, 2016


Back in the 1970s, I worked in a small Connecticut tackle shop.

The shop was less than five minutes from my house, and about the same distance from my boat, which meant that I could get up and go fishing each morning and still have no trouble getting to work by the time the shop opened at 7 o’clock.  I could buy all of my gear at cost.  And if I still smelled a bit like stripers or bluefish when I stepped behind the counter, no one paid too much attention.

It seemed like the perfect arrangement, and for a while, it was.  I could be out every day before sunrise, get some good fishing in, then spend the heat of the day in an air-conditioned shop talking about fish, until I went home for dinner and then, if I felt like it, back out after stripers again at night.

Life was good, at least until the bass population began to collapse.

The collapse wasn’t unexpected.  The late Bob Pond, inventor of the iconic Atom plug, noticed that striped bass spawning success had cratered, and warned that the stock was headed for trouble.  He took the money he made from his fishing lure manufacturing business, and used it to advocate for striped bass conservation. 

He came to the shop where I worked, and as I spoke with him, his words made a lot of sense.  I was on the water just about every day, and it was impossible to ignore the fact that the smallest bass were missing from the population.  I was finding big bass—the largest over 50 pounds—but the younger year classes that represented the future of the population were just not around.

On the other hand, the tackle shop’s owner couldn’t care less about Bob Pond’s views, or the health of the bass population.  He was in business to make money, and if that meant encouraging his customers to go out and kill as many big bass as they could, well, that was fine with him.

He discouraged me from talking about conservation in the ship, and when I did, he seemed to get a twisted kick out of making a special effort to tell the next customers to bring in a boatload of stripers, so that he could weigh their fish and take their pictures and hang them on the shop wall, to better encourage other people to do the same thing.

He seemed contemptuous of the whole idea of trying to keep what was clearly a troubled stock from falling into further distress; so long as he could make a buck or two off the folks killing the fish, he’d just keep on encouraging them to pile dead stripers on the dock.

And there weren't many regulations governing how many bass you could kill back then.  There was a 16-inch minimum size, and Connecticut had make stripers a “gamefish” that couldn’t be sold, but you could kill as many bass as you wanted, and a lot of those fish ended up being sold to restaurants regardless of the gamefish law.

Eventually and inevitably, the striped bass stock collapsed and the owner sold the tackle shop to someone else and moved to the Florida Keys, where he died well before the bass were declared rebuilt in 1995.

It has been forty years since the striped bass population began its collapse, and twenty since it was recovered.  One might expect that in all of that time, people in the fishing industry would have finally seen the need to conserve troubled stocks, and so avoid the long, painful process of rebuilding a collapsed population.

Unfortunately, there are too many people who, like the owner of the shop I worked for decades ago, still focus only on short term profits.  Despite the lessons taught by the striped bass collapse, which should have been reinforced by the disappearance of species such as winter flounder, they stubbornly oppose needed harvest restrictions and blindly ignore the fact that fishing businesses need an abundance of fish if they are to thrive.

The latest illustration of such willful blindness can be seen in the summer flounder fishery.

Summer flounder have experienced six consecutive years of below-average spawns.  The last good year class of fish was spawned in 2009, and the remnants of that year class, although large, are growing scarcer each year.  

The spawning stock biomass is declining.  There is a real risk that, if the annual harvest is not reduced, the stock will become overfished and thus put at risk.

However, as reported by CBS News, New York’s angling industry is fighting all efforts to conserve the summer flounder population.

“’A lot of boats have been put out of business already and more to follow if these rules go into effect,’ said Ken Higgins, a captain who takes out boat loads of recreational fishermen daily…
“’Fluke are the bread and butter on Long Island, so we really can’t take anymore restrictions.’”
Others echoed similar sentiments.

“’It can’t happen,’ said Fred Galofaro, publisher of The Fisherman magazine.  ‘It’ll cripple the industry, and it affects everybody in the industry.  It affects all the tackle shops.  It affects tourism.’”
There’s no question that tightened regulations, particularly a shortened season, would have an immediate impact on fishing business’ bottom lines.  However, what no one is talking about, and what no one even seems to be considering, is the impact that a badly depleted, perhaps even a collapsed, summer flounder stock would have on the recreational fishing industry.

And no one seems willing to talk about balancing the short-term impacts of tightened regulations against the longer-term impacts of doing nothing, and seeing the summer flounder population decline even farther.

With more restrictive regulations, anglers might be able to at least catch a few fish, even if they wouldn’t be able to take many of those fish home. 

If regulations aren’t tightened and, due to poor spawning success, fish are removed from the spawning stock faster than they can be replaced, there can come a time when many anglers are no longer able to catch any fish, because there are so few around.

And when you can’t even catch a fish, the question of whether you can take a fish home becomes academic.

But no one in the industry seems to be giving that any thought at all.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.”
Right now, the folks who are opposing more restrictive summer flounder regulations are closing their eyes and keeping them tightly shut whenever anyone mentions the six consecutive years of poor spawning success, and the resultant impact on the fluke stock.

But as we learned with striped bass four decades ago, the problem with walking around with your eyes closed is that it makes it easy to march right off of a cliff.


  1. "I was finding big bass—the largest over 50 pounds—but the younger year classes that represented the future of the population were just not around."

    and yet, management strategy for summer flounder seems to keep increasing the minimum size, virtually guaranteeing that anglers will only keep prime female spawners.

    oh, yeah, they were supposed to have spawned enough to make up for it.

    anglers, with a shorter season, and smaller limit of fish, with a larger minimum size, will in fact increase the angling pressure to get keepers, and increase the mortality of smaller fish.

    why is a slot not considered, which seems to be working in the redfish fishery?

    1. It's a logical question. The answer requires other questions.

      First, how many females are needed to produce an average year class? There is not a linear relationship between female spawning stock and the size of a year class. Unless a stock has collapsed, and the spawning stock has fallen extremely low, there will usually be an average year class regardless of spawning stock size. A lot of females produce a lot of eggs, but there is more competition for food and hiding places, and more availability to predators, so a high percentage of the young die, and you end up with an average year class. If there are a smaller number of females, you get fewer eggs, but higher individual survival, and also end up with an average. It is usually oceanographic/environmental conditions, rather than spawning stock size, that dictates year class size.

      And yes, delayed harvest is supposed to provide more opportunities to spawn.

      Discard mortality in the recreational fishery is a real problem. The best way to control that is with a shorter season, that gives anglers less chance to kill fluke of any size. But would anglers really want that?

      And would anglers want a slot? First, it shuts them out of the fishery for larger fluke, which many anglers prefer. Few fishermen will want to throw back a 5-pounder and keep a 16-inch fish. And would they want the smaller season that went with it? We could have the same 14-inch minimum size that the commercials have, but the season would last a few weeks rather than a few months. Cut the size limit, and season and bag will also be affected.

      Finally, redfish make a poor example. First, they are managed for "excapement", with the goal 40% of fish "escaping" into the spawning stock, which stays offshore most of the year. Large fluke would be accessible to anglers, and also contribute to discard mortality. And, current redfish management isn't really working, at least north of Florida. From Georgia north, there is a lot of data suggesting that they are not doing well.


  2. as it was this year, to get a "limit", anglers would fish twice as long and catch 100 fish to keep a few for each on the boat.

    the larger the minimum, the more rough handling of bigger fish is going to happen, increasing mortality.

    the environment conditions that limit the year class size may vary, but are irrelevant for regulation since it is outside of the considerations of management.

    so the *only* management tool you've focused on is reducing the season.

    as to slots, with striped bass, there is a trophy size and a slot size, that can satisfy multiple angler needs: 1. to get to keep some fish for the table and 2. to get to keep that trophy fish. Slots have their own problems, of course, but it beats just increasing the minimum size when all the boat wants to do is send everyone home with something for the table, both individual and charter (aka "head") boats.

    if you survey anglers regarding slots, given the current dire proposals being made, I believe you would receive an overall positive response.

    1. It was definitely hard to get a limit of fluke this year; I experienced the same problem. But I don't blame that on the current regulations, because I don't keep 18-inchers anyway--I always like to let fish go unless they're at least 1" over the limit, just in case I measured wrong, etc. Limits were hard to find because the population is shrinking, and poor spawning has caused a shortage of those just-legal 18, 19 and 20" fish. Which is why more restrictive regulations are needed. Again, I recognize the problem caused by release mortality, but one of the answers is for anglers to stop fishing for small fish--they need to use bigger baits, which require bigger hooks, etc., so that the smaller fish don't take the bait deeply as often.

      And it's not true that environmental conditions are irrelevant to management, just because they can't be controlled by regulation. They are considered as contributing to natural mortality, recruitment, etc., all of which are things that biologists consider when determining how much fishing mortality can be permitted.

      I'm focusing on reduced season because, if you're concerned with fishing mortality, that's the answer. You get less "rough handling" if anglers have less time to handle fish. Shorten the season, and you can then drop the minimum size and/or increase the bag limit. If you keep a longer season, you're stuck with a larger minimum size and/or smaller bag.

      You don't need a slot size to address multiple uses of striped bass. One fish at 28" or more gives anglers the choice of taking home one little fish, or trying for a trophy. The problem is when states allow anglers to keep one little fish AND a trophy; after all, if you're killing the trophy, you'd better be eating it, and if you already have all that meat, what do you need the little one for?

      I note your comment about "the boats" wanting to send everyone home with a fish. I get that. However, fish aren't, or at least shouldn't be, managed for "the boats." Fluke are a public resource, and should be managed for the greatest overall public benefit, not managed to benefit "the boats." They will just have to accept the regulatory risk inherent in the fishing business, just as all businesses have to live with the regulatory risk impacting their particular businesses.

      Would anglers support slots today, if they had all of the information, including the necessary and related shortening of the season, etc? I don't know. Some might, some might not, depending on where and how they fish. On the other hand, even if an angler says that he'll support slots today, if you ask him next summer, when he has to let five-pound-plus fluke go because they're above the upper end of the slot, and I think that you'll get a very different answer.