DNR catches heat on flounder plan


January 31, 1993|By PETER BAKER

Early last week the Department of Natural Resources got an earful at a public meeting on its fisheries management plan for summer flounder.

According to William P. Jensen, director of DNR's Tidewater Fisheries Division, the department's target is a 14-inch minimum, a daily limit of six per angler and a season that would run from May through September.

Although Monday's meeting was not called to discuss the specifics of the management plan, Steve Early, assistant to the director of Tidewater Fisheries, and flounder specialist Jim Upoff found themselves facing some 50 Maryland anglers.

Of the 27 recreational, commercial and charter boat fishermen that spoke at the meeting, all but one were against DNR's plans, as they were laid out by Jensen in an article in The Sun a week ago.

The crux of the problem is that Maryland again would institute more stringent regulations than either the Potomac River Fisheries Commission or Virginia.

Captain Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, said that the flounder plan could be the final strike for Maryland fishermen.

The first two strikes, in his opinion, are the 10-inch minimum on croaker and a proposed change in sea trout regulations that would set a limit of 10 fish in the first year and five in the second.

Delaware is the only other neighboring state with a croaker minimum (8 inches), and Virginia has legislation pending that would set a creel limit of 15 for sea trout.

"Now you are coming up with a flounder plan," O'Brien said at the meeting, "and you want to go to 14 inches and six fish per person for Maryland fishermen. Virginia is going in with a law that sets 10 per person vs. Maryland's six.

"That is strike three for Maryland fishermen," he said.

But before one gets the idea that the fishermen were against an increase in minimum size limit, a creel limit or a season, it should be said that virtually all present were in favor of a plan that would ensure flounder fishing as good -- maybe even better -- than last year. And last year's flounder fishing was phenomenal.

Despite the fishing last year, Upoff said, statistics supplied by the National Marine Fisheries Service indicate that flounder along the coast are in trouble. The reason for it is simple: fishermen, both recreational and commercial, place high value on a good catch of flounder.

And the life cycle of the flounder, whose distribution is between Cape Cod, Mass., and Cape Fear, N.C., keeps it in prime `D position to be caught by commercial and recreational fishermen.

Summer flounder spend the warmer months in coastal or bay waters and migrate offshore in late September to spend winter in deeper water. During this migration, flounder spawn seemingly at random and winds and current carry the larvae inshore, where they become bottom-oriented in the prime nursery areas of coastal bays and estuaries, including the Chesapeake Bay.

"They grow extremely fast," Upoff said. "During the first year they reach 10 to 13 inches, one of the most rapid growth rates for any species of fish. About 50 percent of males are mature by about 10 inches and 50 percent of females are mature by about 13 inches."

Even though a rapid growth rate and an extended spawning area and season should make the flounder less susceptible to class failure, NMFS statistics show that in recent years spawning stocks have been about 2 to 3 percent when they should be around 20 percent.

Landings of flounder along the Atlantic Coast have dropped from a peak of 43 million pounds in 1979 to 11.5 million pounds in 1990, and the recreational catch has steadily decreased since 1984.

Fishing mortality stands at nearly 75 percent annually, when it should be about 20 percent.

The result is a fishery that is dependent on fish from 1 to 3 years old, even though female flounder have the potential to live 20 years and males may live up to seven years.

In a nutshell, Upoff said, the goal of the fisheries management plan is to conserve flounder for the long-term benefit of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast.

Basically, that would involve reducing fishing mortality by 47 percent, with an emphasis on sparing immature or newly mature fish and increasing the spawning biomass by guaranteeing that virtually all flounder would be able to spawn at least once. Hence, a size minimum of 14 inches.

Another part of the plan is to "promote compatible management regulations between state and federal jurisdictions."

This is the part that makes Maryland fishermen angry. They have been through it with rockfish and croaker and face it again with sea trout and flounder.

Maryland takes a hard line in accordance with recommendations of the Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and Virginia, which gets first crack at virtually all the tidewater species, does what it likes.

Butch Tawes, Shad Edwards, Curtis Johns and Albert Hoffman drove up from Crisfield last Monday night to talk about flounder and the differences between regulations for Maryland waters and Virginia's and the Potomac River, which apparently will follow Virginia's lead. Bruce Scheible and Tom Drury drove from Point Lookout and St. Jerome's Creek.

They and others fish the waters of Maryland's lower bay, the Potomac River and Tangier and Pocomoke sounds, where the state line seemingly always is just over your shoulder.

All were in agreement that if the flounder needs help, then steps should be taken. But all also were in agreement that Maryland should not restrict its fisheries to meet a coastal plan while Virginia does as it likes.

Virginia, remember, signed the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which set out to conserve or restore the bay, its wetlands and its creatures. One has to wonder whether anyone in the Old Dominion read the document before signing.

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