Quota on fish angers boaters

Charter captains decry recreational flounder catch limits

48% reduction ordered

April 20, 2001|By Candus Thomson and Joel McCord | Candus Thomson and Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - Maryland must slash its harvest of summer flounder nearly in half this year, and nowhere is that felt more acutely than here, where a large part of the tourist dollar is spent on fishing trips.

More than 150 angry charter boat captains, tackle shop operators and recreational fishermen packed the city council chambers last night to complain bitterly about the cuts.

Phil Jones, head of resource management for the fisheries division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, had hardly begun his explanation of the quotas when he was interrupted.

"Where do they get those figures?" shouted one man.

"So, it's a survey; it's not a direct thing," called out another, as Jones explained and those in the audience scoffed.

"I'm out there fishing five days a week, and there's no way we are overcatching fish," called a man in a red jacket. "You don't survey. Just ask me."

Summer flounder fishing is a $150-million-a-year business in the mid-Atlantic region and accounts for more than half of the charter boat business here, the captains say. And that spills over into the rest of the economy.

"We have hundreds of clients come from Pennsylvania, Ohio, even Minnesota," said Charles Vanarsdale, general manager of the Ocean City Fishing Center. "They need hotels and food, and that means business for people who do those jobs, and the tackle shops, too."

Federal fisheries regulators, pressured by lawsuits from environmental groups, have ordered sharp cuts in the summer flounder harvest in states from Massachusetts to North Carolina. In Maryland, that means a 48 percent reduction.

Flounder, the odd flat fish with both eyes on the left side of their heads, range from Nova Scotia to South Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. They are most abundant in the mid-Atlantic states, from Rhode Island to North Carolina.

The flounder harvest has been regulated since the 1980s because they had been overfished. Under a 10-year recovery plan established in 1993, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service have set annual quotas, allowing commercial fishermen to take 60 percent of the catch and recreational fishermen 40 percent.

Commercial fishermen have stayed below their quotas, but recreational fishermen on the East Coast have exceeded theirs every year since 1996, said Jones. Last year, they harvested 15.6 million pounds of flounder, more than twice their allotment of 7.4 million pounds.

Last summer, the national fisheries service, which regulates off-shore fishing, settled a lawsuit with four environmental groups that argued its plans for reducing the flounder catch didn't meet the goals of the recovery plan and set a quota for this year of 17.9 million pounds. But the Atlantic states commission, which regulates fishing in coastal waters, set a quota of 20.5 million pounds.

The agencies agreed to the national fisheries service's figure this month and told the states they had to meet new goals. Rhode Island would have to cut its harvest by 57 percent, New York by 41 percent, North Carolina by 32 percent.

Maryland, which has been increasing size limits, reducing daily quotas and shortening the flounder season annually since 1995 without much success, would have to reduce its catch by 48 percent.

What particularly galled this crowd was news that Virginia, which has one of the largest commercial flounder fisheries on the East Coast, has to cut its catch by 4 percent.

"How can they get away with that, and it's all on us?" one man shouted.

Quotas are based on previous annual catches, Jones explained. Virginia's quota is higher because its harvest has been so large over the past three years.

To meet its 48 percent reduction target, Maryland's DNR delayed the opening of the season from April 15 to May 20 in the ocean, and June 6 in Chesapeake Bay and set hearings. The agency has proposed a sliding scale of alternatives that increase minimum size, shorten the season and set new daily catch limits.

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