The summer flounder population has been in a decline. Such decline is due, in large part, not to overfishing (although modest overfishing has occurred in one or two recent years), but to at least six consecutive years of below-average recruitment of young fish into the flounder population.
Biologists haven’t yet figured out why such low recruitment is occurring. Some sort of unfavorable, and hopefully transient, oceanographic condition is the likely culprit, but exactly what that condition might be, no one really knows.
On the other hand, over the past few years, there has been a persistent drumbeat of non-scientific opinion, which seems to have originated somewhere in the New Jersey angling community, that blames the poor recruitment on current recreational fishing regulations, and more particularly, on size limits that result in most of the recreational harvest being composed of female fish, which grow larger and faster, and live longer, than males.
An article that appeared in a New Jersey fishing magazine is typical. It claimed that “blame must be assigned to any management strategy that forces us to target spawning class females exclusively. It’s crazy; we’re talking about biological suicide! Basic logic, and good common sense, would indicate that a smart management plan should allow angler retention across a broad spectrum of year classes and sizes rather then keying us into this cubbyhole where we now find ourselves.”
The author of the article also argued that “NMFS is mismanaging this totally rebuilt fishery so badly that if we continue down this road we will in fact be in trouble again soon. The regulatory inspired discards are deplorable and any manager that continues to allow this to continue is in my opinion displaying a despicable lack of responsibility to the resource.”
But while that language is all couched in concern for the resource and a seeming desire to protect the summer flounder spawning stock, the same writer also complained that
“the problem is that the sizes we used to keep, and that once made up a good portion of our seasonal catches, are now off limits. Face it, most fluke have always been around 16 to 17 inches long. Back in the day and in a ‘newly rebuilt’ fishery they are still roughly the same size. Contrary to the preservationist theory, preventing public access to fluke will not create a sea full of halibut! One might say that fluke fishing is generally fine; however, it’s fluke keeping that’s our problem.”
Thus, there’s more than a little reason to suspect that the real motivation behind calls for a fluke “slot limit,” which sets a minimum and a maximum size limit that would permit anglers to keep smaller fish than they are allowed to retain today, was to increase the harvest rather than the spawning stock biomass. Nonetheless, the concept has always been veiled in terms of conservation and better science.
The current summer flounder management plan doesn’t permit the use of slot limits in federal waters. At its December 2018 meeting, the MAFMC discussed the merits of including the use of slot limits in such management plan.
Prior to the meeting, MAFMC members were provided with an analysis of the possible benefits and drawbacks of using slot limits to manage the summer flounder fishery. According to such analysis, from a biological perspective, slot limits don’t fare very well.
The analysis didn’t consider any particular set of slot limits. It addressed both the situation where all summer flounder kept by fishermen must fall between an established minimum and maximum size, and that described in an article published in Delmarva Now, a Delaware news outlet, which noted that “many anglers point to a slot season, where anglers might keep a couple smaller (and potentially, male, flounder) along with one large fish per trip.”
It turns out that such combination of a slot limit plus an additional “trophy” fish may create the worst situation of all.
As explained in the materials provided to MAFMC members, one study
“compared to a standard minimum size limit, the slot limit options considered would ‘certainly result in greatly increased number of fish harvested’ due to the higher availability of smaller fish compared to larger fish. Although discards may decrease under certain slot limits, total removals (i.e. harvests and discards) would likely increase due to the increase in harvest. An increase in removals of numbers of fish would increase the fishing mortality rate. Under some slot limit options, marginal benefits to spawning stock biomass (SSB) were predicted; however, these benefits were eliminated when a trophy class was considered in combination with the slot limits.”
A second study also found “that slot limits could result in the number of summer flounder harvested by anglers, as well as a small reduction in the number of female summer flounder harvested. They found that slot limits generally resulted in lower harvest and more discards by weight, and higher and higher and more frequent catch limit overages, compared to minimum size limits.”
The two studies, performed by trained fishery biologists, refute the claims made by slot limit supporters in the angling industry. It turns out that the use of slot limits in the recreational summer flounder fishery would increase, not decrease, overall fishing mortality. Slot limits have no material impact on the health of the spawning stock and, particularly if anglers are also allowed to also keep one larger fish on each trip, might have no impact at all.
Based on those findings, it’s hard to credit claims that fishery managers are currently mismanaging the fishery by imposing conventional minimum size limits, much less that such conventional limits are “crazy,” “biological suicide,” or represent “a despicable lack of responsibility to the resource.”
Moreover, the use of slot limits creates some practical management problems. The MAFMC’s materials reveal that, particularly when the recreational harvest limit is low, “a very narrow slot limit would be necessary to constrain summer flounder to the [recreational harvest limit]. Narrow slot limits could be more challenging to enforce and could lead to greater noncompliance than wider slot limits or a standard minimum size.”
Despite the negative impacts of slot limits, a substantial majority of the members of the MAFMC agreed to authorize their use at its December 2018 meeting. It’s reasonable to wonder, “Why?”
The answer to that question can be found in the words of the New Jersey writer quoted above, who complained that “the sizes we used to keep, and that once made up a good portion of our seasonal catches, are now off limits…most fluke have always been around 16 to 17 inches long.” Because the one thing that slot limits do better than a conventional minimum size, if “better” is the right word to use, is that they increase the number of summer flounder that anglers are able to keep, and that is what the slot limit debate has always really been about.
As that New Jersey author noted, “it’s fluke keeping that’s our problem.”
The fact that the MAFMC voted to allow the use of slot limits doesn’t mean that such limits will ever be used. Right now, they are just one more tool that managers will have at hand.
But should they ever be used, it’s now clear that such use will have nothing to do with increasing the size of the spawning stock, and everything to do with increasing the recreational kill.