The Straight Dope on Fluke

Fluke on deck

Be careful what you wish for… you just might get it

I hesitate to write about fluke again, but given the woefully inadequate press on the issue, and the current focus by politicians, who clearly aren’t getting the whole story, I think it’s important anglers understand the situation, and what’s at stake here.

Let me reiterate, the summer flounder (fluke) stock IS NOT doing well. Six years of poor recruitment (aka poor spawning success) has driven the stock down to the point that if we continue to fish at this level, we will have real problems in the not-so-distant future.

Above: fluke up close.  Top: fluke on deck. Photos by John

Above: fluke up close. Top: fluke on deck. Photos by John McMurray.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts here, the last good spawning success was in 2009. Yes, guys are still catching those larger, pre-2010, fish (generally on the ocean side in 40-plus foot of water). And yes, such fish do indeed appear to be somewhat abundant, particularly in some geographically isolated areas (e.g. Eastern Long Island).

Those catches are likely what’s showing up in the recreational fishing surveys, which indicated we went over our allotted quota last year (some states, particularly New York and Connecticut, by a lot).

I won’t deny that it is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that such recreational fishing surveys could have overestimated catches, especially if you compare them to last year. I mean, if surveyors intercepted enough of those anglers fishing a bit offshore, once such data is extrapolated I can certainly see how it might indicate wide-ranging high catches in a state, when anecdotally, effort and catch seems to be a lot more isolated. Will circle back to this shorty.

The overarching point here, at least for now, is that the stock is depleted. Ask just about any angler who fishes the inside, the bays, etc., and they will tell you straight up, there ARE NOT many fish around, and that most traditionally good fluke spots have not been productive in the last few years.

This is not just anecdotal, nor is it a case of bad (aka “flawed”) data. There are thirteen different fisheries-independent surveys that show the same recruitment problem with summer flounder.

Absolutely, there are plenty of people who want to believe that the stock is doing fine, simply because they may have had a good season in the isolated area they fish.

Let’s be clear though. It isn’t…

Fluke & fly. Photo by John McMurray.

Fluke & fly. Photo by John McMurray.

At current fishing levels, we are definitively “overfishing” summer flounder. In other words, we are taking out fish at a much higher rate than they can be replaced. All the existing science shows this to be the case.

Despite all the claims of “outdated” assessments, there was a stock assessment update just last year.

It indicated that fishing mortality was about 26% higher than it needed to be to maintain the stock at a level that wouldn’t cause it to become overfished.

An important caveat here though is that the stock is not yet “overfished.” In other words, it hasn’t yet fallen to a scientifically determined level that requires it to be “rebuilt.”

However… It’s almost a certainty that it will fall below that level if we continue to fish at the intensity we’re fishing, which is exactly what some in the recreational fishing industry (mostly in New Jersey, but certainly in New York as well) seem to be suggesting. Specifically, they want status quo measures until some new, better stock assessment can be completed, which MIGHT (emphasis added) allow them to kill more fish.

So, just to be clear, if we maintain status quo it is almost a certainty we will dip below the spawning stock biomass threshold, and the stock could be designated “overfished” as early the end of this year! And if (or maybe more appropriately “when”) that happens, we won’t be looking at a 30 to 40% reduction in fluke quota… It’ll be more like 70 to 80%! And that is no joke…

I think if a lot of people actually knew this, they probably wouldn’t be pushing so hard for status quo.

And as far as a new assessment goes, there’s one being considered for 2018, but it’s uncertain whether NOAA will prioritize it. Regardless, I’m still not clear how or rather “if” any new modeling approach used in a new benchmark could somehow negate six years of poor recruitment.

I mean, come on man. If there are less fish around, we simply can’t keep fishing them at the same level than when there were a lot around… not if we want a robust fluke fishery in the future. That seems pretty damn obvious to me.

Next week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will consider Summer Flounder Draft Addendum XXVII, and ultimately pick a preferred option.

While they are all constraining, there are some really terrible options in the document (for New York anyway) and there are some that aren’t so bad.

Option 5, More Coastwide Consistency, offers a near coastwide one‐inch size limit increase and bag limit reduction to four fish. Sure there are some states who won’t like that, but it still seems to offer the longest seasons and what I believe are reasonable size and bag limits across the board.

In New York, it would allow a 128-day season and a three fish bag with a 19″ size limit. Although this option does achieve an approximate 30% reduction, it falls short of the 41% reduction required, thus I’m not sure NOAA would go along with it.

That option supports the biological conclusion that a 30% reduction is needed, yet it doesn’t really address the 2016 overage.

That may be acceptable as there not only appears to be a great deal of uncertainly with the catch estimates amongst managers and stakeholders, but there are some recent retrospective issues with the recreational survey that may negate the 10% anyway. I mean, whether we went over target or not, I dunno. But the years of poor recruitment are there, almost undoubtedly.

I suppose we’ll see what happens after next week.

Right now though, doing nothing (aka status quo until we wait for some time and outcome-uncertain stock assessment) just isn’t acceptable.

While we’re waiting, it’s more than likely the stock becomes “overfished,” and we’ll all be looking at a 70% to 80% reduction down the road, because we’d ultimately be fishing under a fishery management council-mandated rebuilding plan. And that would really suck!

But aside from all that, for the stock and the long term sustainability of the fishery, not to mention the general fishing public who depends on an abundant summer flounder resource to be successful, making such a harvest cut right now is just the right thing to do.

It’s time to put the big-boy pants on and just do it.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is the Owner/Operator of One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, NY.

13 comments on “The Straight Dope on Fluke

  1. Since scientists know so much ,could it be that the bigger fish want bigger food to feed tham so they stay ocean side ,because the inner bay’s can only provide so much quality ambushed space ,our bays in nj are paved with 12 to 21 inch fish drop a video camera they are there even when u are not catching

  2. I’m surprised you actually believe the science!
    The RV Bigelow is using the wrong gear type. That is why stock and recruitment is low.
    Congress mandated mrffs be corrected over a decade ago. MRIP is just as bad, if not worse.
    Using knowingly false data is a fraud. The council will be held responsible.
    Suggest YOU open your eyes and get on the train or it will surely run you over.

  3. I fish the NY bite area pretty much exclusively and have done so for the past 30 years. There is no lack of Fluke, there is however a lack of keeper Fluke since 80% of the fish we normally catch are well below the current 18 inch size limit.

    New sex and size studies being conducted by Dr. Patrick Sullivan, who is collaborating with Rutgers University and Cornell University, indicates that over 90% of Fluke over 17.5 inches are Females. With the current regulations set at 18 inches and the pending regulations at 19 inches, anglers are forced to target and harvest the very fish that are responsible for breeding and sustaining the biomass.

    Arguments about flawed data aside, fact is that the Fluke Fishery has been under Federal Management over 20 years now. Based on their own numbers, assessment methodologies and corresponding regulations, the fishery has not recovered. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Time to force some changes here on how this fishery is managed, don’t you think?

    • I would agree with you John but if we as recreational fisherman are over fishing then surely the commercial end are way overfishing the stock. Why is it put on our backs? Its time for all rec and commercial to cut back and give the fluke a chance to recover. Im so sick of them saying sorry you overfished again you have to cut back. Its getting kind of old year after year of hearing this. Something else has to be done because the way its being managed clearly is not working.

  4. Forcing recreational fishermen to take only BREEDER sized fish is not the solution. Institute slot limits. The commercial fisheries take fish way below the size limits for recreational fisheries. 15-20 inches is more than sufficient. This size fish is perfect for the dinner table and in numbers that will not affect the bio – mass. Throw back the shorts and the BREEDERS.

    • Der Tipp hatte bei mir leider nicht fuetiionknrt, bekomme nach wie vor einen 500 Internal Server Error, spätestens wenn man einen Eintrag erstellt.

  5. Rein in the comerical fishermen as one net does more damage than 1000 anglers…Does not Frank Pallone own Bayshore Fisheries?

  6. Well, for one, Bigelow is only one index among many. And as far as current size limits focusing effort on large spawning females? Seems intuitive that if the commercial side is killing 60% of the fish @14”, then there would be plenty of mortality on males. So total fishing mortality right now on males/females would likely be relatively equal, or at least not hugely skewed towards females. Even if the killing-mostly-large-females thing is correct, if we are talking about 19” fish, those females have had a chance to spawn several times. From a biological perspective, that’s probably better than killing smaller fish (though a slot or whatever), a good percentage of which would of course have to be females, that haven’t had a sufficient chance to spawn (at least twice). I mean, one could certainly make the case that killing younger females, in order to include a larger percentage of males actually decrease the overall fecundity of the stock? Really needs to be some analysis on this. And as far as Commercial fishers, well they are taking 30% cuts too (and took a cut last year that the anglers didn’t). And re reducing the size limit comment, 15-20” in the northern states would lead to HUGE harvest, and most certainly overfishing…. Re “our bays in nj are paved with 12 to 21 inch fish” … Great. If that’s the case then why do you have a problem with 19” (or 18”)?

  7. I would argue that the rebuilding plan worked. The stock did recover. We just had a run of bad recruitment. When that sorta thing happens, we need to reduce fishing mortality so we don’t drive it down to levels where it can’t, or has an extremely hard time coming back.

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  9. Make it a five fish limit. 18 inch limit three. And two at 17 inch every one is happy. Cost money and cost time loss of work for some and cost of charters and charter boat Captains. Come on now give us a break we work for our money same as you and want at least something for our dollar fishing with family friends and Great Atlantic shore Captains.Don,t send our quota over sea,s. Let us have fun recreation and fish fries. Amen. Think about the Fishing aspect and the lives that depend on it. Amen In God We Trust. God Bless Captain George Angler. And Danny Party Boat Fishermen. And Also Captain Kevin Bradshaw from NY now Atlantic Highlands to make it a true life fishing . Fuck giving we need more fish to survive. Buy all you want but enjoy catching also fun recreation and family outings that are getting expensive.Give back to the working man. If I want fish I know where to catch them come catch me but bring help.

  10. Pingback: Summer Flounder (Fluke) – Fissues

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