Sunday, April 23, 2017


Fluke regulations have been particularly contentious this year.

Six years of poor recruitment has led to a declining stock, which is now estimated at just 58% of the target level.  In a July 2016 report, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee warned that

“the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.”
Thus, it was clear that harvest would have to be reduced to avoid forcing the stock into an overfished state, and to avoid forcing the National Marine Fisheries Service from imposing the significantly more restrictive regulations that would then be needed to fully rebuild the overfished stock.

However, the Committee also recommended that the Council  not adopt such coastwide regulations, but instead work with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which would adopt “conservation equivalent” regulations which would also achieve the needed reduction, while allowing states to adopt regulations that were best suited for their local fisheries.

Since anglers located in the heart of the fluke fishery—the states of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey--collectively caught nearly 85% of all recreational landings in 2016, it was pretty likely that regulations in those states would look a lot like with the Monitoring Committee had proposed.

ASMFC prepared a Draft Addendum XXVII to the Summer Flounder, Scup, Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan for Public Comment,  which laid out some possible regulatory alternatives. 

If ASMFC had opted to adopt state-specific regulations based on alleged summer flounder landings in the base year of 1998, 2017 regulations in the three core states would have been extremely restrictive, ranging from a 2-fish bag, 21-inch minimum size and 53-day season in Connecticut to a 3-fish bag, 18-inch minimum size and 81 day season in New Jersey.  However, no one having any real experience with East Coast fishery management believed that such regulations would ever be adopted

That’s because ASMFC had grown concerned that, for various reasons, the state-by-state management approach did not treat anglers in all states equitably, with regard to access to the resource.  As a result, beginning in 2014, fluke were managed on a regional, rather than state-by-state, basis, which led to consistent regulations, and a more equitable distribution of angling opportunities, being shared among states belonging to a given region.

Draft Addendum  XXVIII reiterated the concerns that gave rise to the regional management approach, saying

“Heading into 2017, the Board continues to have the same concerns about disproportionate impacts among states from the use of 1998-based allocations and state-by-state management measures.”
Thus, it was almost certain that some sort of regional regulations would be adopted.

The Draft Addendum proposed a number of regional management measures.  The most severe would impose 2-fish bag limit and 18-inch minimum size, along with a very short 59-day season, on the Connecticut/New York/New Jersey region.  However, that option would also result in a 49% reduction, which was substantially more than was needed, so once again, it was a very unlikely candidate.

The likely options looked a lot more like what the Monitoring Committee had come up with:  3 fish, a 19-inch minimum and either a 96-day or 99-day season.  Such regulations were a lot better than either the state-by-state or the other regional option.  However, they didn’t quite allow for a season that ran from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and thus were shorter than a lot of anglers and angling-related businesses would have liked.

There are some members of the angling community who seem to oppose any additional restrictions, no matter how badly they’re needed.  And we all know members of the community who, when discussing fish, tend to exaggerate things a bit.

Thus, we saw a lot of bad information being spread about the reductions associated with Addendum XXVIII.

However, although such restrictive regulations were an utter fantasy, they were a fantasy that quickly spread through the angling community and caused much unnecessary angler and consternation.

“something in line with a two-fish bag limit for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and perhaps even Rhode Island, a 19-inch minimum size and a three-month season spanning June, July and August at best,”
and began by telling anglers

“I’m about to really tick you off.”
Lost amid all of the posturing, “alternative facts” and manufactured outrage was the really important news: Fishery managers employed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division were quietly putting together a case for regulations that were less restrictive than anything else proposed by the Council, ASMFC or NMFS.

The proposal ultimately appeared in Draft Addendum XXVIII as “Option 5,” which would impose the same 3-fish bag and 19-inch minimum size on the Connecticut/New York/New Jersey region that was suggested by both the Council and ASMFC, but couple that size and bag with the same 128-day season that the states have enjoyed since 2014.  Other states would be required to increase their minimum size by one inch, and adopt a bag limit of no more than 4 fish.

There was some doubt about the viability of such rules, as they would only address the 30% reduction required by the declining stock, and not address any purported overfishing in 2016.  In a December 8, 2016 letter to the Chairman of ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, Marine Division Director James J. Gilmore, the following explanation was made

“There seems to be a poor relationship between the recreational measures (derived from calculations based on the [Marine Recreational Information Program] and the performance (as estimated by MRIP)…Under 3 years of consistent regulations from 2014-2016, coastwide harvest estimates in numbers of fish have ranged from 1.6-2.5 million fish, varying as much as 50% between years.  When we consider a smaller geographic scale, this variability increases to 66% between years in the CT-NJ region, and an average of 139% at the individual state level.  It is difficult to say how much of this variability is due to estimation vs. actual harvest magnitude…
“Given a declining summer flounder stock biomass, lower catch limits have been recommended by the SSC and adopted by the Council.  More conservative recreational measures must be adopted along the coast in order to take fewer fish.  Given the variability discussed above, it is impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy the impact changing measures will have on recreational harvest estimates.  Adopting more conservative measures should reduce harvest; we just do not know how much with any degree of confidence.
“We suggest a simple approach to decrease the number of legal fish available to anglers.  Real reductions in mortality can be achieved with a size limit increase of one inch across the board for every state and region.  Increased seasonal restrictions will also reduce harvest, though the change in season length needs to be significant in order to achieve meaningful reductions.  Additionally, the seasons in some regions are already highly restrictive (128 and 132 versus 245 and 365 days).  Cuts to the length of season will be more painful to some states and regions than others.  We are not, therefore, recommending cuts to seasons in regions with significant restrictions already in place.  The impact of reductions in the possession limit are harder to calculate, but have the advantage of reducing our exposure to the inflammatory potential of any single intercept…Our suggestion is that no state or region have a bag limit higher than another, and that bag limit not exceed 4 fish.”
It was a bold proposal, as it effectively said that, given the limitations of MRIP as currently implemented, the evidence of overfishing in 2016 was not convincing enough to mandate remedial measures.  There was a lot of uncertainty as to what ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Technical Committee, or NMFS, might say about the measure.

Most of the answer to that came in a January 20, 2017 memorandum from the Technical Committee to the Management Board, which adopted New York’s analysis and stated, in part, that

“The [Technical Committee] agreed that Option 5 was more likely to achieve a ~30% harvest reduction than Options 1 through 4 were likely to achieve a 41% reduction, mainly due to the fact that given all of the variability in the information on which the reduction calculations are based, the ability to achieve a more modest goal is believed to have a higher probability of being realized than a more conservative goal.  Option 5 is based upon broad strokes to reduce harvest through universal minimum size increases and consistent lower possession limits.  In addition to decreasing the number of fish harvested, the minimum size limit increases may grant some protection to younger year classes and it is hoped that smaller possession limits will decrease MRIP variability by dampening the inflammatory potential of heavily weighted intercepts.  The measures proposed in Option 5 also continue the progress toward equitable access that have occurred under regional management thus far…While the reduction value of changes to bag and season can be ‘calculated’ as part of the standard methodology, the actual impact on harvest and harvest estimates is far less certain.  We have seen that variability in actual harvest and in harvest estimates is high, and large reductions in a small number of states/regions may not be realized whereas the broad measures in Option 5 are more likely to be effective in at least some portions of the coast.”
Given that endorsement, Option 5 was adopted by ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board.  The only remaining question is whether NMFS would go along
Last week, anglers got the good news that NMFS has issued proposed regulations that would allow states to implement Option 5.  The notice stated that

“We propose to continue the ‘conservation equivalency’ approach, in which states develop state or regional minimum sizes, possession limits, and fishing seasons that will achieve the necessary level of conservation.  Both the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recommended continuing conservation equivalency.
“For state waters, the Commission has reviewed measures submitted by the regions and certified that they are, in combination, the conservation equivalent of the Federal coastwide measures that would prevent overfishing.”
So, thanks to some groundbreaking work by James Gilmore, his colleagues Steven Heins and John Manascalco and other folks at the New York DEC, fluke anglers in the Connecticut/New York/New Jersey region will be able to enjoy the same season as last year, that runs from the middle of May through mid-September, in exchange for what, given the state of the fluke stock, is a relatively modest increase in the size limit along with a reasonable bag.

They won’t have to suffer through the draconian rules imagined by some in the angling press, nor the more restrictive regulations that were actually being contemplated by the Council or ASMFC.

As they drift the fluke grounds this summer, it would be nice to think that fishermen might give some thanks to the team at the DEC’s Marine Division who, amid all of the hype and hollering, quietly and effectively came up with a way to protect the fluke, while maximizing anglers’ opportunities to enjoy the resource.

Such thanks was certainly earned.

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