Photo: Winter Flounder
It’s the end of March, and my boat should be in the water.
At one time, it would have been.
Despite cold and wind, I’d have been waiting for the weekend, because March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—was the unofficial start of the winter flounder season. I, and a horde of other anglers all across New York’s Long Island, would have been buying sandworms, bloodworms, mussels and clam chum, and gassing up our boats for our first trips of the season.
Down at Captree State Park, on the shores of Great South Bay, some of the party boats would have been sailing since the first weekend in March, carrying a few eager anglers willing to probe the still-cold bay waters for the first few flounder of the year. But on St. Patrick’s Day, all of the boats would have sailed; even if it was a weekday, they would have been crowded with fishermen who knew, without doubt, that at the end of the trip they’d be taking fish home.
Today, my boat sits on the asphalt, still shrouded in its shrink-wrapped winter cocoon. There’s no rush to slice through that cover, no need to put up with March winds while painting the bottom and waxing the hull. I probably couldn’t launch it now, even if I wanted to, as it sits amid other vessels, all of them covered and none of them likely to go into the water at any time soon.
Most of the flounder are gone, their numbers so depleted that inbreeding has become a threat. The season, which once ran all year, has been shortened to a mere 60 days, and for most of that time, an angler can still fish all day and have trouble putting together a two-flounder limit.
We used to bring them home by the pailful, and sometimes a bushel basket or big burlap sack was too small to hold a day’s catch.
And that, of course, was the start of the problem. Too many flounder were taken, leaving too few in the water to maintain a sustainable stock.
Anglers weren’t the only cause of the flounder’s decline; New York’s commercial fleet netted them up by the untold thousands each year, landing 3.26 million pounds of flounder in 1966, its highest landings on record. But anglers killed more, accounting for 6.8 million pounds in 1984. The average weight of the angler-caught fish was less than a pound, so we were killing them when they were still fairly small and had few chances to spawn.
And when fishery managers first tried, in the mid-1980s, to put in regulations to halt the flounder’s decline, they ran into stiff opposition from the recreational fishing industry, which argued that anglers wouldn’t go fishing if they didn’t have the “perception” that they could still bring a lot of fish home, if they happened to catch them.
Even after a 2008 stock assessment found that the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic flounder stock (which is the stock we fish on in New York) had shrunk to just 9% of sustainable levels, and fishing in federal waters was closed in response, the angling industry opposed a similar closure in state waters.
One industry attorney, speaking at the February 2009 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Management Board (Management Board), acknowledged that winter flounder were in trouble, saying “we have an extreme situation here; there is no doubt about it.”
But then he opposed emergency action to close the fishery in state waters, arguing that “the partyboat industry in particular is a fishery giving an opportunity more so than guaranteeing bringing fish home…There are several partyboats that still make a living at this. Even though they don’t catch a lot of fish, they’re providing an opportunity for people to come out in the spring and wet a line. There is an economic impact here.”
In the end, such arguments carried the day. Today, some New York party boats still sail for winter flounder. However, as the flounder disappeared from our bays, the flounder fishermen disappeared as well, so many other boats stay tied to their docks and the ones that do sail often carry only five or six fares when they once carried dozens.
So yes, there was “an economic impact” in the Management Board’s decision, and it was bad. By refusing to take the steps needed to stop the flounder’s decline, the Management Board condemned the party boats and the tackle shops, the gas docks and the rowboat rentals, to a continuing decline in business at the same time that they condemned New York’s winter flounder to possible extirpation.
And the saddest part of that story is that winter flounder are not alone.
It wasn’t very long ago that New York’s anglers didn’t have a closed season. After the last striped bass of the fall left for their wintering grounds, whiting and ling (more properly called silver and red hake, respectively) moved in close to shore. Party boats docked in western New York and Northern New Jersey sailed twice, sometimes three times per day, filled with anglers willing and able to load up on the good-tasting fish.
Even shore anglers got in on the action. The Coney Island Pier in Brooklyn was a well-known night-fishing hotspot. Folks with a taste for whiting didn’t even need a rod and reel; they merely had to walk along a barrier island at night and gather up “frostfish” that had beached themselves while chasing bait in the curl of a retreating wave.
But that is all history now; the inshore whiting are gone, and ling numbers are down. No one can say why for sure, although many strongly suspect that the same small-mesh squid nets that devastated populations of immature scup, and led to the creation of “gear-restricted areas” intended to stop the scup’s decline, devastated the whiting as well. But unlike the scup, the whiting did not return once managers finally got the squid nets under control.
The once-vibrant fishery died.
In response, New York Bight anglers shifted to the winter tautog (locally known as “blackfish”) fishery. Fishermen had long known that tautog abounded in areas such as “17 Fathoms” off the northern New Jersey coast, but that fishery was eclipsed by the abundant whiting and ling. Once those disappeared, most of the angling effort shifted to tautog, and for a while, fishing was good. But tautog don’t grow or mature very quickly, and the increased recreational effort, coupled with a new commercial fishery spawned by a demand for live fish in urban markets, quickly depleted the population.
In 1996, biologists “recommended an immediate reduction of fishing mortality to avoid a collapse of the fishery resource,” and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) adopted a plan to reduce fishing mortality to sustainable levels. ASMFC stated, “The management measures of [the] plan will preserve a recreational fishing opportunity and all of the associated economic benefits that would be lost if stocks were allowed to collapse,” and also made a nearly identical comment with respect to the commercial fishery. It acknowledged that “any economic losses that may result from proposed fishing effort reductions will be recovered by allowing a valuable fishery to continue for future generations.”
But shortly after making that statement, ASMFC allowed the needed harvest reductions to be delayed, then delayed again. The last tautog stock assessment, completed in 2015, indicated that fishing mortality remained at twice the target level that had been established nineteen years before. New York’s tautog remain both overfished and subject to overfishing.
Not too many people fish for tautog anymore. Tackle shops and fishing stations haven’t been selling many fiddlers or green crabs—both popular tautog baits—in recent years, and the party boats are looking for something to fish for in both late spring and fall.
I could tell other stories about summer cod at Coxes Ledge or spring pollock at Block Island, but they would sound much the same, tales of formerly abundant fish stocks that, for want of timely and adequate management measures, have been fished down to crumbs too scant to nourish an industry, or even most anglers’ efforts.
They are stories of loss, not only of angling opportunities, but economic opportunities as well, in which the healthy and sustainable fisheries that should be our birthright were exchanged for greater short-term gains that led, inexorably, to long-term depletion.
They are stories that we still haven’t learned from.
With winter flounder, tautog, and whiting all diminished or gone, legislators have introduced a bill that, if passed, would place summer flounder at risk, while representatives of the angling industry are fighting to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Magnuson Act, which protects fish stocks on all of America’s coasts.
They say that less restrictive rules will be better for business.
Winter flounder, tautog and whiting say that they’re wrong.