At their meeting in Baltimore on 12/14, the ASMFC and MAFMC discussed Draft Addendum XXVIII to the Summer Flounder, Scup, Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan. The addendum is expected to be tweaked a little and then released for public comment in the near future. Unfortunately, things are not looking good for our 2017 fluke regulations. Based on the MRIP survey numbers and the 30% cut in the coastwide quota that has been mandated by the MAFMC and ASMFC for 2017, it seems likely that our regulations regarding fluke will be significantly more stringent in 2017. Preliminary wave data through August shows at that time we had already harvested 5.67 million lbs. of fluke, slightly over the 5.42 million pound coastwide quota. Wave 6 (September-October) data will not be released until mid-December but the coastwide recreational harvest for the year is projected to be 6.28 million pounds. The problem is that for 2017, the quota is a mere 3.77 million pounds. The new quota coupled with the fact that we over harvested our quota for this year will result in us having to reduce our coastwide harvest by 41%. However, this number could go up or down slightly when the wave 6 data becomes available. A shorter season, an increased size limit and a reduced bag limit or combination thereof will be considered. The reason for the cut is that there has been poor recruitment during the last few years and the spawning stock biomass has been declining.
Still, the problem as I see it is not with the fish or the fishermen but rather 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. The SSB and Recruitment table in the addendum shows that the SSB peaked in about 2003 at approximately 50,000 mt. This same table shows that there is no real correlation between the size of the SSB and recruitment. In fact it shows that some of the best spawning success was in the early 1980's when the SSB was only around 20,000 mt. If the SSB target was adjusted to a more reasonable level, we would not be forced into the draconian restrictions that are now being proposed.
Something also should be done to reduce catch and release mortality. A study funded primarily by Save our Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF) showed that at the 18" size limit, 95% of the fluke harvested are females. In part, the study recommended that the size limit should be lowered to allow more males to be harvested which would also reduce catch & release mortality.
There are a number of options that were discussed at the meeting and none of them are good. It was nice to see Congressman Frank Pallone there and he made a passionate plea for the council and board not to take the drastic action they are considering. He went into depth as to how devastating this would be to our commercial and recreational fishermen as well as the various businesses that depend on them. Congressman Pallone also submitted a formal letter indicating same that was cosigned by Senator Cory Booker. Kudos to these two legislators for trying to help!
Various options are being considered including coastwide, regional and state-by-state measures. It is a real problem though because no matter which measures are chosen, some states will be hurt more than others. For instance, if the coastwide options were to be approved, all states would have a 4 fish bag limit at 19" with a season of 6/1 though 9/15. However, that option would have a negative impact on the states to our south where they are accustomed to a 16" size limit and a 365-day season. If state-by-state measures were chosen NJ would have to cut back by 26% which would allow us to have a 3 fish limit at 19" with an 81-day season (down from 128 in 2016). However, New York and Connecticut would have to take at least a 73% cut which could result in them having a 21" size limit and a season less than two months long. Finally, we could continue the regional approach with the size limit going up one inch from last year for each region. Still, that would result in NJ, NY and CT having a 2 fish limit at 19" and a 107-day season. Regarding the regional approach there was no provision in the draft addendum for special regulations for Delaware Bay or for shore-based anglers. However, this was brought up and these options are expected to be included in the final document.
Be aware though that all the aforementioned options are just examples of regulations that would meet the necessary reduction in quota. Other options could be developed through conservation equivalency but those will be equally as bad. This is a real conundrum and nobody knows how it will pan out. Naturally, each state will be fighting for what is best for them and it will not be easy to reach an agreement. The ASMFC is expected to choose which management option to use at their winter meeting which is scheduled to run from 1/30 to 2/1. Unfortunately, though, the only real chance at reasonable regulations for the upcoming year may very well be through political intervention.