Winter Flounder: The Bill Has Come Due

Winter Flounder

Here on Long Island, St. Patrick’s Day—March 17—was always the unofficial start of the winter flounder season.

That date wasn’t imposed by law. For many years, there was no closed season, and an angler who knew what to do could catch at least a few flounder at any time that the bays weren’t sheathed in ice. But even so, St. Pat’s was the day that things really got started.

From the East End of Long Island to Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, party boats would leave their docks and head for sheltered flats, where dark mud bottoms held the thin warmth of the sun, and encouraged flounder to feed. Even on raw, windy days, the party boats carried lots of anglers, who hid from the weather in crowded deckhouses until it was time to fish.

A surprising number of private boats jointed in the hunt, despite often unpleasant conditions. Anyone who grew up on the bay can tell stories of huddling, exposed, on the thwart of a rowboat, not minding the chill once the flounder decided to bite.

The action got better as the water warmed; on a nice April day in the mid-1980s, anyone driving across the Robert Moses Bridge, which spans Great South Bay, could look to the east and see a solid fleet of small boats extending from the bridge pilings out to the channel that lay more than two miles away.

Party boats sailed just about every day, shaking off their long winter torpor. Tackle shops, gas docks and boat rental stations also kick-started their seasons, as anglers emerged from hibernation. From mid-March right through May, many thousands of fishermen turned to the bays, and brought flounder home for their dinners.

They caught a lot of fish, for a while. In 1984, New York anglers removed nearly 7.5 million winter flounder from their state’s waters.

That sort of harvest just couldn’t last; New York’s flounder stocks began to decline.

Beginning in the late 1980s, fisheries managers proposed regulations to protect New York’s flounder. Their efforts were strongly opposed by the fishing industry, and particularly the party boat fleet, which claimed that anglers would not pay to go fishing absent the “perception” that they could have a “big day” when they took home a pailful of flounder.

The result was a compromise: regulations put in far too late, which did far too little to halt the winter flounder’s decline. That was the pattern established for winter flounder management all along the coast. Fisheries managers recognized the need to reduce winter flounder landings, but were frustrated by concerted opposition from the recreational fishing industry, which depended on flounder-related business to keep their doors open during the spring.

It didn’t help that, after flounder left the bays in late spring and entered the ocean, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) managed their harvest. The same sort of ineffective fishery management plans that led to the decline of other New England groundfish affected the flounder as well. While anglers didn’t catch many in the open ocean, the trawler fleet did, and excessive commercial harvest also played a big role in the flounder’s demise.

Winter flounder were caught between state managers’ reluctance to harm their recreational fishing industries and the NEFMC’s reluctance to impact the incomes of the commercial groundfish fleet.

In February 1999, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Management Board (ASMFC Management Board) decided to ignore its previous decision to adopt more restrictive state regulations if harvest exceeded the fishing mortality threshold (F=0.40), because the NEFMC would not adopt similar cutbacks.

Roles were completely reversed in 2009, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that the southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder was so badly overfished that it declared a complete moratorium on harvest in federal waters. Then, the ASMFC Management Board refused to follow suit, and merely reduced recreational and commercial landings in state waters.

In more recent years, NMFS again opened federal waters to winter flounder harvest, while the ASMFC Management Board elected to quintuple the length of the recreational season.

So many years of mismanagement has led to the inevitable result. Last year, New York’s anglers landed fewer than 5,000 winter flounder, roughly seven-hundredths of one percent (0.07%) of what they harvested three decades before.

Extensive research carried out at New York’s Stony Brook University suggested that New York’s winter flounder population has fallen so low that the fish could be extirpated in some or all of the state’s coastal waters.

Even so, New York’s party boats and fishing tackle businesses tried to wring the last drop of blood from a dry and crumbling stone. They asked the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to relax regulations, as neighboring states had already done, and allow anglers to increase their kill of the few fish that remained. Fortunately, the folks at the DEC’s Marine Bureau had the wisdom to refuse their request.

This year, when Saint Patrick’s Day rolled around, Great South Bay was empty. Captree’s party boats remained in their winter slumber; the once-busy docks were a ghost town.

The scene was the same from Brooklyn to Montauk, from the North Fork of Long Island to Little Neck Bay—with the flounder all but gone, and the season shut down, marinas are quiet. Tackle shops are empty and still.

When the season reopens on April 1, a few party boats will sail. Most will stay dormant for a couple weeks more, until angler interest increases enough to barely make sailing worthwhile. On a Saturday afternoon late in April, a driver crossing the Robert Moses Bridge should be able to look to the east and see at least two or three boats still seeking flounder.

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and early 2000s, the New York’s party boats and tackle dealers wanted to keep their customers’ flounder catches high. So they fought regulation, borrowing from the future in order to maintain a higher harvest than science or common sense allowed.

Today, the bill for that borrowing has come due with interest; folks are not pleased to learn what they owe.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

14 comments on “Winter Flounder: The Bill Has Come Due

  1. FYI CHARLES The party boats wanted flounder open due to a new fishery that was never explored out of fire island to keep in business,which was ocean flounder trips as limit catches were the norm daily with good angler participation.It was a nice trip to operate and interest levels were high ,however two per angler bag kept it from taking off.Had there been a decent bag limit (5-8 ) We would have had the option to not gang up on fluke at the bridge all day and relax pressure. The best thing for the fish ,the people,(remember as much as you don’t like it PARTYBOAT ANGLERS ARE PEOPLE TOO),and the economy on long island would be to have every species open all the time with reasonable attainable bag limits. Raising size limits is not an effective way to rebuild a stock ,but spreading out pressure is. Noone in that meeting suggested that winter flounder should be open because there healthy,the reality is the state can’t acknowledge the fact there is another blackback run which never comes in our bay to spawn and frankly they wouldn’t know how to manage it. I personally wouldn’t mind if they closed the GSB to spring flounder but we both know it would not rebuild the stock therefore it would have been nice to relax regs on them after seeing a long run with awful regs do NOTHING!!! We would have been better of banning all fertilizers south of sunrise year round,but unfortunately its probably too late for that too. Your statements are not always erroneous but they are always biased against us party boats.I would like to keep supporting my family as my father did fishing and as a veteran and taxpayer i believe we deserve too. Think of how you would feel as an attorney if you were told you can only work for four months,or you can work and have new clients but not for two weeks in august,etc,etc. Your entitled to your opinion on party boats but remember not every NY. fisherman/woman can afford to have your lifestyle and have their own boat,like it or not they are entitled to enjoy a public resource too. You have been around and on the council for a long time and the days of greed are well behind us.The days of buckets full of flounder and coolers full of 9inch sea bass are over but its been taken too far now.

  2. I fished the bay my whol e life; in 1980 we noticed only female in the next few years we just gave up ;no conservation would help the bay is just about dead. coffee colored water no chance for life. thanx to all the builders

  3. Worked on Captree party boats for 12 years thirty years ago, and in fish markets in winter. Most days seasoned veteran GSB party boat captains knew where to find flounder (and then fluke) depending on the time of year and their movement from bay to inlet. Most never imagined venturing into the ocean to catch flounder, and in those years few went offshore in search of fluke when the weather was relatively nicer. But then the trawlers got more technology, and they were bigger, and in the fish markets we were given cases after cases of big, roe-filled flounder that were bigger in size than most fluke we caught during the summer. In those years, all those 3 pound flounder filleted in Freeport made many people money, but the roe going down the table and into the trap made for a horrible future for the species and for GSB party boat owners.

  4. What actual evidence is there regarding the main cause(s) of the decimation of the flounder fishery. All I see is anecdotes and unsupported claims. At one I was led to believe that the main causes were commercial fishing and pollution and that sport fisherman couldn’t put much of dent in a healthy fishery if they tried.

  5. Went out last night to test ride my boat after a repair. Water was brown and full of floating dark brown globules that looked pretty gross! And we wonder what happened to our fishery!

    • Hey Matt: Explain why winter flounder and whiting disappeared right around the same time in the early 1990’s ? I saw the whole thing with my own eyes and commercials destroyed all that fishing. Just like that they were gone and a few years after the commercials wiped out summer flounder in the late 1980’s. They went wild catching fluke offshore in the winter and there was horrendous fluke fishing inshore in 1989.What a coincidence !

  6. Winter flounder and whiting disappeared right around the same time, so don’t give me any of that environment crap , seals . The commercial fleet went wild with the fluke in the late 1980’s and almost wiped them out . The Feds cracked down and the commercials targeted winter flounder and whiting and ruined those fisheries. I remember the dreadful fluke fishing in 1989, party boats went for winter flounder as last as July. If the recreationals weren’t catching fluke, what did the commercials catch in the early 1990’s ? Draggers went off Jersey and scooped up huge amounts of whiting and on the way home there were thousands of dead whiting on the surface for seagulls.
    Commercials beat down the whiting and flounder stocks so far they will never rebound. The scientists were right about over fishing. Ling are making a comeback because they weren’t commercially desirable and could hide in wrecks and rockpiles . Isn’t that a hint it was commercial fishing that destroyed whiting and flounder. I witnessed the bad fishing in the 1970’s and saw the fish recover in the early 1980’s again. Then the American fleet finished them off. I’ve seen the whole cycle and blame commercials 100 percent and all the stinkin party boat owners who resisted management. Search and destroy, that’s what fishermen are all about.

  7. You have 19 inch size limits for fluke because the commercials went wild with fluke in the late 1980’s and nearly wiped them out. the gov’t raised the size limits thru the roof to bail out those stinkin commercials. You gotta throw back a nice 18 inch fish and the part time commercial man in the bay can keep 14 inch fish. So fair. Looking forward to the day when the commercial fisherman is extinct.

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