Sunday, January 22, 2017


Ever since the National MarineFisheries Service announced that the 2017 summer flounder catch limit had to bereduced by 30% compared to the year before, elements within the East Coast angling community have been railing against the new rules, and demanding that nothing change.

The folks who are arguing for the status quo inevitably attack the quality of the science used to make the determination that harvest cuts are needed.

“the problem as I see it is not with the fish or the fishermen, but with our fisheries managers.  They set a target of having 62,394 metric tons in the spawning stock biomass (SSB) but that has never been achieved.  In fact, this number seems so high that it may be ecologically impossible to reach…”

“A few years ago [NMFS] declared the fishery recovered since spawning stock biomass came within the target range.  But once we reached a spawning biomass that large, recruitment began to decline.  As you can see from the table [of recruitment and spawning stock biomass published by NMFS], we had better recruitment when the spawning stock biomass was much lower.  I have contended, and some scientists have agreed with me, that we have reached the top of a bell-shaped curve which coincides with the highest levels of spawning stock biomass ever recorded.  The fact that we have exceeded the carrying capacity may be one of the reasons for the poor recruitment…“

“Basing harvest limits on outdated data and models is destroying the New York fishing community.  It is crucial that all federal decisions are based upon the most accurate scientific data and models.  Waiting another day for a new summer flounder benchmark assessment is one day too many.”
Such sentiments have even led to a petition asking regulators to maintain status quo summer flounder regulations in 2017, pending the completion of a new benchmark assessment (which will definitely not occur in 2017, and might not occur in 2018, either).  Proponents of the petition argue that

“What NOAA Fisheries has failed to do is update the stock assessment for summer flounder as the stock has expanded north and east.  Independent reviews found that there are significant deficiencies of [sic] the summer flounder stock assessment and that improvements should be made to the modeling approach.  It is expected that those changes could eliminate or lessen the need for quota reductions but NOAA Fisheries has no plans of updating the assessment before approving the 2017 [acceptable biological catch].
That sounds all very well and good, but one thing isn’t being considered.

What if the current science is right?

Right now, the 2016 update to the benchmark stock assessment (and yes, contrary to what you read in some of the quotes above, the benchmark assessment is not “outdated data” and NOAA Fisheries has not “failed to…update the stock assessment) tells us that the stock is at just 58% of the target biomass, and that recruitment—the number of young fish entering the population—has been below average for six consecutive years, 2010-2015.

Scientists warn that

“the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as [2017] if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.”
That warning was supported by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistical Committee, a panel of eighteen scientists, all possessing doctoral degrees in relevant disciplines.

The benchmark stock assessment itself, which the Mid-Atlantic Council relies on, was peer-reviewed by a panel of independent fisheries scientists, including Dr. Cynthia M. Jones of the Old Dominion University Center for Quantitative Fisheries Ecology, Dr. Robin Cook of the MASTS Population Modeling Group at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, Dr. Henrik Sparholt, the Deputy Head of the Advisory Department of the Secretariat of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), and Mr. John Simmonds, the Vice Chair of the ICES committee which provides fisheries advice.

That peer review panel analyzed the data used to manage summer flounder, including the biomass target, the stock/recruitment relationship and other relevant parameters, and found such data appropriate for that purpose.  That represents a strong endorsement.

When we look at the folks disputing the science, we find those quoted above—a retired police lieutenant, a former Army officer and an ex-charterboat captain who now serves as excecutive director of an “anglers’ rights” organization—along with a number of other party and charter boat captains, fishing tackle dealers and magazine writers, who may be very familiar with the recreational summer flounder fishery, but have no claim to being called fisheries scientists.

Think about this for a minute.

If you were worried that you might be facing colon cancer, you’d probably look for a qualified gastroenterologist/oncologist.  You wouldn’t take the advice of a plumber, even if he claimed that the colon was more or less the body’s sewer, and the same sort of thing flowed through both kinds of “pipes.”

If you broke your leg, I suspect that you’d want to get to a hospital emergency room posthaste, even if your friend the carpenter lived nearby, and assured you that he could make everything right by just tightening a couple of clamps on your calf and shin.

And if you or a member of your family had the misfortune of being accused of a serious crime, the odds are pretty high that you’d be looking to hire a lawyer, even though someone you knew back in high school spent ten years in jail, assured you that he knew the justice system from the inside out, and could tell you what to say to the judge in your own defense.

In short, when something bad is happening, you probably want the best professional advice you can find to address the problem, and not just try to wing it with amateur help.

Put in the context of the fluke fishery, the fact that the population could become overfished later this year, and that hasn’t seen a good spawn since 2009, is bad.  The fact that no one knows why recruitment has been so poor for so long only makes things worse.

So the question is, should we rely on a team of well-trained fisheries biologists to address and try to fix the problem, or should we accept the assurances of a bunch of boat captains, tackle dealers and various other untrained folks to tell us that things will be OK?

If the amateurs are right, we can maintain the status quo harvest of 5.42 million pounds, rather than dropping down to a harvest of just 3.77 million pounds in 2017.

But if the scientists are right, that 5.42 million pounds could well push the biomass below the overfishing threshold, making fluke even harder to find and depleting the reservoir of large, spawning-sized fish at a time that few young fish were entering the population.

That seems like the wrong way to go.

Anglers need to ask themselves whether they would rather catch fluke, and not bring too many home because of more restrictive regulations that are helping to rebuild the stock, or not catch fluke, and so not bring too many home, because the population has been depleted.

We worry about what feels like a small, 3.77 million pound bag limit this year, enforced by a 19-inch size limit that will force us to release a good part of our catch.

If the science is right, we probably should be worrying about pushing the population back to where it was in 1989, when the size limit was just 14 inches, but even without restrictive bag limits, anglers could only catch about 3.1 million pounds of fluke, because there just weren’t many fish to be found.

The bottom line is that if the science is wrong, and we reduce recreational landings when we could have stayed at status quo, we won’t take too many fish home, the fishing industry will have a slower year (but will also benefit from a likely relaxing of black sea bass rules and the 2011 year class of striped bass entering the fishery), and we’ll catch more fish than we expected in 2018.

On the other hand, if the science is right and we stay at status quo…


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