OCEAN CITY -- "The catching is good, but the keeping is lousy," grumbled Pennsylvanian Dale Royster when asked how he was doing on the Harry Kelley Bridge. He said he caught about 20 fish, but had only one in his cooler.
He was, of course, referring to flounder -- the mainstay of the inshore fishery here. They're plentiful, but small. Royster's keeper barely made the 13-inch minimum. In addition that fish was one of only five I saw on both sides of the bridge.
I fished a couple hours, caught seven. But, my biggest was 9 inches, which would have barely been big enough for a sandwich back in the free-wheeling days when there was no minimum size requirement.
Another Pennsylvania angler George Gladding threatened Ocean City. "The wife and kids can come back, but damned if I will," he said. "I've been here three days, and I haven't got one I can keep yet. Goodbye Ocean City, hello Cape May -- that's where I'm going when the family come here. They can have the beach here, and I'll have the fish there."
I told him he'd probably find the floundering the same there -- and about everywhere else along the coast. Things are tough everywhere for flatfish. He grimaced, and admitted I was probably right.
He was an old-timer. He knew what it was like in the good old days; get a half-bushel basket of flounder just about any day.
Bridge fishermen talk about the big mystery. Last year, they also caught loads of undersized flatties -- and everybody said wait until next year when they grow up.
It was the same the previous year, and the year before that. The mystery is where did those small flounder go. They didn't grow up, or if they did, they didn't come back.
What happened? They probably ended up in the nets of commercial trawlers. Lots of fish are in trouble these days -- sharks, sea trout, marlin, swordfish, rockfish, sea bass, porgies and hardheads to name a few. But the most popular of all among the average fisherman, the flounder, is in the worse shape of all.
Coastal fisheries managers have decided it's time to bite the bullet, and bite it hard. No more putting it off; no more leaving it to individual states to grab the bull by the horns. A coastal management plan is in the works.
And it will make anglers flinch -- though most concede it must come. It's overdue.
Dave Keifer, assistant director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in Dover, Del., talks about a program to spread the pain out among both commercial and recreational fisher
men. But it will come as a jolt -- like reducing flounder mortality by 47 percent in the first year.
Let that sink in. Cutting the mortality -- that's primarily catching and keeping -- by one half; one half of practically nothing!
There are many suggestions, all of which are being used as a basis to formulate a final plan. Among them are a commercial minimum size of 13 inches, a reduction in trawler mesh size, and state-by-state quotas.
For sports fishermen, there are such ideas as a 14-inch minimum, and three fish a day on a year 'round basis, or 10 fish a day with a 14-inch minimum, and fishing shut down from January through June. Possibly it will end up in a five to seven daily creel, with a partial closed season.
Everyone seems to know a problem exists, but how to cure it is the debate, the same with sea trout, for which a management plan is also in the works. Expect public hearings on flounder at the end of July, sea trout shortly thereafter.
Sometime in July fisheries managers also will take a look at the Boston mackerel fishery, which is not itself in trouble, though problems have popped up for recreational anglers who complain the pressure of commercial fishermen making catches for big foreign mother ships scatter schools being fished by hook and line from headboats.
Fisheries managers want to determine if this problem is serious enough to address. Mackerel thrive, even though the 1991 coastal commercial catch was a record-breaking 13,800 metric tons. It was 9,500 tons in 1990, another record.