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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, Nov/Dec 2006



Flyrodders should pay attention as this small flat fish could change the way we manage our marine resources.

By Capt. John McMurray


Not many of us flyrodders bother targeting this small flatfish.  It sits on the bottom, usually in deep water and fast currents, doesn’t bother to fight much and certainly isn’t as attractive, strong or as fast as a striper, false albacore, red drum, tarpon or bonefish.  But, the debate that is unfolding right now with this species could change the way we manage other sport-fish indefinitely, so by all means it’s worth covering in this magazine.


This humble fish (locally called fluke) threatens to tear down one of the most important provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act - a requirement that fisheries management plans have finite time frames for completion and that they have at least a 50% chance of achieving their goal.    The provisions in question seem reasonable, given that “conservation” and “sustainable fishing” are two primary goals of the Act.  However, a handful of fluke-dependent businesses and industry spokesmen in the mid-Atlantic region, feeling threatened by impending cuts in summer flounder harvest, don’t find the requirements reasonable at all, and are willing to put the health of America’s fisheries at risk in order to give temporary protection to their own livelihoods.


 After overfishing had driven the summer flounder stock size to record lows by the early 1990s, managers projected that the stock could rebuild in 10 years simply if overfishing was stopped.  Fluke stocks’ steady growth indicated that rebuilding by the target date, might in fact happen.  Unfortunately, by 2005 summer flounder recovery stalled out.  The most recent scientific assessment indicates that the stock may even have taken a downturn.  Although the rate of overfishing has generally been decreasing, it increased slightly in 2005 and remained about double the overfishing rate. Scientists report that even with a swelling population, juvenile fish are not being added to the fluke population fast enough to meet a 2010 rebuilding target. The stock will not be able to rebuild by the target date unless significant management changes are made.  While there are most certainly doubts about the data leading to this conclusion, we must still rely on the best available science.  So, NOAA Fisheries is recommending fluke be cut back considerably when fishing starts in spring 2007.


The proposed 2007 East Coast quota of 5.1million pounds (down from 23million)  next year would effectively shut down a summer flounder industry that significantly adds to New York and New Jersey’s coastal economies.  That’s unfortunate, but not as unfortunate as the fact that that recreational and commercial industry groups are exploiting the bad news by using Fluke as the Poster Child to help promote the Pombo/Frank (HR 5018) bill which eliminates finite rebuilding timeframes.  The summer flounder situation should not be used as an excuse to rollback the underlying law.   The 10-year rebuilding time frame provision in the Magnuson Stevens Act is a necessary forcing mechanism to make sure the managers move forward on rebuilding stocks despite political pressure to continue overfishing. 


Rep. H. James Saxton, R-N.J., a ranking Republican member with close ties to the fishing community and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., wrote an amendment to Magnuson-Stevens that sets a two-year deadline to end overfishing on a species within two years of the trend being detected, and before the stock is actually overfished. This amendment would make things even more difficult for fluke fishermen than current 10-year rebuilding provision, but it would undoubtedly help them in the future as the stocks would recover quicker.  Delays in rebuilding simply reduce and delay the economic gain obtainable by fully recovering the stock.


There is a large groundswell of opposition to reducing fluke harvest in 2007 and these same folks are pushing the Pombo/Frank bill which would have grave consequences to the future of fisheries management.  We fishermen have to ask ourselves, do we want to try and rebuild the fishery at all allowable costs, or do we want to max out harvest at all allowable costs?  Do we want to take a long view on this or do we take the short view?


Judging by current press on the issue, it is obvious to me that the push to rebuild fluke is not as powerful as the push to fish out fluke. It appears that the players in this case have borrowed a few pages from commercial groundfishermen in New England which are suffering terribly because they were allowed to fish cod down to unsustainable numbers.  The attitudes of entitlement are once again paramount to ecosystem considerations and to the economic considerations of what it takes to manage and maintain a fishery.  Are we currently going to make the same mistakes?