Another shorter flounder season looms



January 06, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

If you thought last year's recreational summer flounder season was bad, wait until you see the 2002 edition.

The gloomy forecast will be delivered Friday morning in Ocean City at a public meeting called by the top folks at the Department of Natural Resources.

Last April, anglers were told that Maryland would have to cut its flounder take by nearly 50 percent. The state responded by imposing a later start for both ocean and bay seasons and a two-week moratorium in mid-summer.

But, says Eric Schwaab, the head of the DNR fisheries, it wasn't enough. "We continued to exceed our targets. The bottom line is, we were still over," he says.

Last month, the regulatory bodies charged with managing coastal fishing met to work out summer flounder quotas for this year. Based on those figures, states have until Jan. 15 to submit proposals on length of season, limit and size that would bring them into compliance.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is recommending to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission a 36 percent increase, or 6.4 million pounds, in the summer flounder harvest. That would push the total from 17.9 million pounds in 2001 to 24.3 million pounds.

Further, the council recommends allotting 14.58 million pounds to commercial fishermen and 9.72 million pounds to recreational anglers. The coastwide minimum fish size would be 14 inches.

At first glance, Schwaab says, the proposal appears to be good news for Maryland. But make no mistake, it is not.

"Yes, the target has gone up, but it hasn't gone up enough to mean that we can hold to last year's number. We have to reduce 5 percent more to have a hope of meeting our target," he says.

It's not that Maryland isn't trying. State officials have been increasing size limits, reducing daily quotas and shortening the flounder season annually since 1995.

Schwaab says anglers can expect more of the same this year.

"We have to take what we did last summer and enhance it, and that means either another increase in minimum size or a further reduction in season length - shortening the season front or back," he says. "We're probably looking at cutting the season."

He continues, "The prime season is late April to early fall, so if we shorten the season to make serious reductions, you're looking at cutting into the heart of the season."

That means balancing the needs of the summer tourism industry against the wishes of the resident anglers, who might not mind a midseason break if it means earlier start and later finish dates.

Other states find themselves in the same predicament. New Jersey, for example, had a 2001 target of 1.6 million pounds. But surveys indicate that more than 2 million pounds were caught. Anglers there will face an additional reduction this year of 17 percent.

Virginia, which only had to cut its take by 4 percent in 2001, failed to reach its goal. Delaware and North Carolina are in the same boat. However, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts reached their targets.

Quotas and restrictions always lead to finger-pointing and accusations. Maryland anglers blame their Virginia counterparts. Recreational fishermen complain that the commercial folks are getting too big a cut. Bay anglers say they shouldn't be held to the same minimum size as ocean fishermen.

There's a lot at stake. 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 in Ocean City, according to captains I've polled.

A hearing last April in Ocean City attracted more than 150 angry charter boat captains, tackle shop operators and recreational fishermen. I can't imagine this year's crowd will be any less emotional.

The bottom line is, it doesn't matter who's fault it is. When the fish are gone, the fish are gone. And apparently we aren't doing a very good job of ensuring that doesn't happen.

Overfishing led to the first regulations in the 1980s. A 10-year recovery plan enacted in 1993 gave the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service the authority to set annual quotas, with commercial fishermen getting 60 percent of the catch and recreational fishermen 40 percent.

Commercial fishermen have stayed below their quotas, but recreational anglers on the East Coast have exceeded theirs every year since 1996, according to federal statistics.

In 2000, for example, recreational anglers caught 15.6 million pounds of flounder, more than twice their allotment of 7.4 million pounds.

But how can anyone take seriously the efforts of two regulatory bodies that can't come up with a single set of goals and seem to collect black eyes at an anatomically impossible rate?

For example, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates off-shore fishing, set a quota for 2001 of 17.9 million pounds. But the ASMFC, which regulates fishing in coastal waters, set a quota of 20.5 million pounds.

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