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.