The Striped Bass and the Flounder

Winter Flounder

In 1984, New York’s recreational fishermen took home about 14.5 million winter flounder, a harvest that totaled about 13.9 million pounds and dwarfed the 1.35 million pounds of flounder that was landed by the state’s commercial fishermen in the same year. Winter flounder made up over one-third of the nearly 40 million fish landed by New York anglers that season.

Although New York’s 1984 flounder recreational landings were the highest ever recorded, they weren’t particularly unusual. The state’s anglers harvested 12.4 million winter flounder in 1981, and 11.9 million in 1985. At the time, the recreational flounder fishery was completely unregulated; anglers could take as many flounder as they wanted, of any size that they wanted, on every day of the year.

The fish was a key component of New York’s recreational fishery. In 1984, New York’s saltwater anglers took about 9 million fishing trips; roughly 2.5 million of those trips—28 percent—primarily targeted winter flounder.

The unrelenting fishing pressure, combined with changing environmental conditions within New York’s bays, proved unsustainable. The winter flounder population entered into a decline that fishery managers lacked the ability, and perhaps the political will, to reverse. The decline became a collapse so deep that, by 2022, New York’s recreational flounder landings fell to a supposed 120 fish, although shoreside catch surveys contacted too few anglers who had caught flounder to calculate a statistically meaningful estimate.

Overfishing was an initial cause of the collapse. The last benchmark stock assessment, released in 2011, reported that “fishing mortality…varied between 0.61 (1982) and 0.95 (1993) and then decreased to 0.47 by 1999. Fishing mortality then increased to 0.70 in 2001, and has since decreased to 0.51 in 2010, generally tracking the decrease in fishery catch.” Since a fishing mortality rate greater than 0.29 constituted overfishing, the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic (SNEMA) stock of winter flounder experienced overfishing throughout that time.

The same stock assessment estimated the spawning stock biomass of the SNEMA stock to be just 7,076 metric tons (MT), well below both the biomass target of 43,661 MT and the biomass threshold of 21,831 MT, meaning that the stock was badly overfished. Updates to the benchmark assessment determined that spawning stock biomass continued to decline, first to 6,151 MT in 2014, then to 4,360 MT in 2016, and finally to 3,638 MT in 2019.

3,638 MT equals a little over 8 million pounds. To put that figure in context, New York’s recreational fishermen caught and took home about 75 percent more SNEMA stock flounder in 1984 than were swimming in the entire ocean 35 years later.

In October 2014, despite the continuing decline of the SNEMA stock, the Winter Flounder Management Board decided to quintuple the length of the recreational fishing season.

Once the SNEMA stock began to decline, fisheries managers found themselves caught between a recreational fishing industry that chafed at any form of regulation and a changing marine environment that put new stress on the stock.

The 2011 benchmark assessment advised, “Recruitment at age 1 decreased nearly continuously from 71.6 million age-1 fish in 1981 (1980 year class) to 7.5 million fish in 2002 (2001 year class). Recruitment has averaged 10.5 million during 2003-2010.” Such declining recruitment has led biologists to repeatedly reduce the spawning stock biomass target. In 2022, a stock assessment update slashed the biomass target from 12,322 to just 3,314 MT. Although the SNEMA stock, at 3,353 MT, was less than half the size that it had been 11 years earlier, when it was deemed overfished, the change to the biomass target shifted the stock’s status to not overfished and above the target level; rebuilding efforts were terminated.

The decline in recruitment began to be felt in the mid-1980s, but when New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation tried to respond, proposing the first restrictions on recreational landings, it met with strong resistance from the recreational fishing industry, and particularly from the party boat fleet, which insisted that, in order to get customers to board their boats, regulations must be lax enough to give such customers the “perception” that they could still have a “big day” and bring a lot of flounder home, even though declining abundance significantly reduced the likelihood of such a big day ever occurring.

When regulations were finally issued in 1988, industry opposition assured that they were not strong enough to halt the flounder’s decline.

That pattern has continued to the present day.

At the September 2009 meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council (MRAC), in response to a stock assessment that found the SNEMA stock biomass to be only 9 percent of its biomass target, an MRAC member proposed shutting down the recreational and commercial fisheries to best conserve the stock. The proposal was met with a wave of industry opposition.

The MRAC bulletin reported one party boat captain opining that “describing winter flounder as a collapsed stock may be inaccurate,” because “when he speaks to fishermen, he hears that winter flounder are perhaps not plentiful, but are definitely accessible.” An audience member, who introduced himself as “Managing Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance and President of the New York Sportfishing Federation,” argued that instead of restricting fishermen, fishery managers should investigate the effects of predation, while a representative of the fishing tackle industry “not[ed] that the recreational fishing community is in trouble and they need to have the opportunity to fish,” and that “They need to keep the [tackle] shops open.”

The fact that the flounder was in trouble did not seem to raise many concerns.

Nearly five years later, at the March 2014 MRAC meeting, members discussed liberalizing New York’s winter flounder regulations, despite the poor health of the stock. As was true in 2009, members of both MRAC and the audience discounted the role of fishing in the flounder’s demise, blaming water quality, cormorants, and other predators for the decline in abundance.

A decade after that, at MRAC’s January 2024 meeting, the industry efforts to kill more flounder have still not abated, as two party boat captains, one from the North Shore of Long Island, and one from Montauk, rose to ask regulators to relax regulations on the collapsed SNEMA stock.

But now, most of the attention of anglers, regulators, and the industry has switched to striped bass, which are probably the single most important recreational species in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions. That’s certainly true in New York, where, of the nearly 16.5 million fishing trips taken by the state’s anglers in 2022, about 5.8 million—35.5 percent—primarily targeted the species, giving it an even more dominant role in the fishery than winter flounder held four decades ago.

But like SNEMA winter flounder, the striped bass stock is not doing well.

While the bass are still in far better condition than the winter flounder, the striped bass population remains overfished, with spawning stock biomass falling from approximately 113,000 MT in 2003 to 55,100 MT in 2018, although it has risen somewhat since then.

Like winter flounder, striped bass are now experiencing low recruitment. The Chesapeake Bay produces between 70 and 90 percent of the striped bass that migrate along the Atlantic coast. In the Maryland portion of the Bay, the striped bass juvenile abundance index (JAI) for the past five years recorded the lowest average juvenile abundance for any five-year period in the 67-year history of the state’s juvenile abundance survey. In Virginia, over the past three years, the JAI has been below the 25th percentile of the entire time series recorded there, and thus meets the definition of “recruitment failure;” if 2023 preliminary data for the Delaware River proves accurate, the same situation will exist there. Only the Hudson River is showing somewhat higher levels of juvenile abundance, and even there, the 2023 numbers are the worst since 1985.

And, as was the case with winter flounder, managers have been slow to respond to the problem, ignoring biologists’ early predictions that the stock was heading for trouble and, for far too long, failing to adopt a rebuilding plan, even though the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan required them to do so. Now that the ASMFC is finally trying to rebuild the overfished stock, some members of the recreational fishing industry are trying to deny that a problem exists.

At a December 5th hearing, held to obtain stakeholder comments on the ASMFC’s latest management proposals, one Long Island charter boat captain announced, “Our observation is that striped bass are as healthy and strong as they have ever been,” and argued that biologists only believe the striped bass stock is overfished because “something has changed,” and most of the bass are now found in new places, where scientists aren’t looking for them.

A Long Island Sound party boat captain built on that message, claiming that the Hudson River, along with some Connecticut rivers, “produce tons of bass,” are “where the bass are from,” and that not including bass spawned in Connecticut’s Housatonic River “is like not including the Dallas Cowboys when you’re looking at cheerleaders.” He apparently didn’t realize that dams on the Housatonic River block all access to whatever spawning habitat the river might otherwise provide.

Instead trying to avert the harm that a striped bass stock collapse would do to their business, the captains railed against needed regulations, with one whining that “We’re being persecuted…You’re already crucifying us,” while another imagining “a very targeted war against the for-hire industry” that was allegedly being waged by surfcasters and private-boat fishermen.

In written comments sent to the ASMFC, a charter boat captain from the South Shore of Long Island, displaying a remarkable sense of entitlement, complained that “As a charter captain I pay a State fee of $250 for my charter business. I pay for commercial insurance. I have to maintain my captain’s license and renew it every 5 years. I am subject to random drug testing. For all of these righteous requirements I get no preferential treatment to help maintain my business and no consideration of what I do for the tourist industry in my region.”

Needless to say, he also wanted managers to adopt special regulations that would allow his customers, and those of the rest of the for-hire fleet, to kill bass that would remain off-limits to the vast majority of anglers.

The recreational fishing industry managed to survive when the SNEMA stock flounder disappeared, although the fishing season begins six or seven weeks later now, and there’s little to fish for inside the bays once the bass begin their southward migration. Both the shops and the boats that once depended on flounder for much of their income are now making do with the other remaining species although, as the comments at the January 2024 MRAC meeting revealed, there are still those trying to squeeze the last drop of blood from a sere and crumbling stone.

But if the bass stock collapses, many of those businesses probably won’t survive.

The striped bass stock collapsed once before, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but when that happened, SNEMA winter flounder abundance was still very high. Anglers were catching big bluefish all along the coast, weakfish were widely available, and the blackfish (tautog) population had not yet declined.

Today, bluefish biomass is just above the threshold, as managers continue to rebuild the recently overfished population. The weakfish stock is depleted; although numbers seem to be increasing, high levels of natural mortality continue to hinder rebuilding. Summer flounder, one of the traditional standbys of New York’s inshore fishery, are not overfished, but the spawning stock biomass is already below its target, and recruitment has been below average for more than ten years. The summer flounder stock experienced overfishing in 2022, and so is in no position to absorb much additional fishing effort.

Only the scup and black sea bass stocks are truly healthy, and they’re already under substantial fishing pressure. Although the spawning stock biomass of both species is double their target levels, that biomass is, nonetheless, slowly declining. Recreational landings of both scup and black sea bass have exceeded the annual catch limits in 2020, 2021, and 2022, and there is no reason to believe that 2023 landings estimates, once they are finalized, won’t continue that trend. It is unlikely that either stock will be able to sustain the additional pressure that would result if anglers shifted their attentions to them instead of striped bass.

There is currently no fishery and, realistically, no combination of inshore fisheries that could absorb a significant portion of the 5.8 million annual fishing trips that would be lost in New York alone if the striped bass stock collapsed.

Yet many members of the fishing industry apparently haven’t learned from the winter flounder’s collapse. They continue to contest the striped bass data and ignore the stock assessments’ findings. They continue to claim all is well, just as they did as the SNEMA flounder stock spiraled downward toward unfishable scarcity.

They don’t understand that if the striped bass collapses again, their own businesses won’t be far behind.

About Charles Witek

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

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