Officials size up flounder formulas



January 05, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

Get out the cookbook. It's time to make flounder pie, 2003 style.

At a Tuesday meeting in Ocean City, state fisheries biologists will ask Maryland anglers what ingredients they'd like to see in this year's fluke season.

Should we have a long, uninterrupted stretch of fishing? Or is it better to have periodic closures or a shortened season in favor of lowering the 17-inch minimum? Does the creel limit need rejiggering?

A pinch of this, a little bit of that. Whatever recipe emerges, the goal is to balance protection of the stock against anglers' sometimes voracious appetite for the flatfish.

Unfortunately, if the turnout at previous meetings is any indicator, state fisheries biologists won't have to worry about the old adage of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

Lots of folks like to fish for flounder -- some even plan their Ocean City vacations around it. My version of a perfect summer evening is baseball on the radio, a nice piece of flaky white flounder stuffed with crab and a bottle of crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc (with a screw cap, of course).

But I'm not expecting to see a lot of anglers on hand Tuesday at City Hall, Third Street and Baltimore Avenue. Put attending meetings in the same category as voting, jury duty and giving blood.

Of course, it might be nice if the Department of Natural Resources held the meeting when more people might be able to attend. A 10 a.m. get-together on a weekday doesn't cut it for most working stiffs.

Unlike last year, when the options for the season were numerous and confusing, DNR hopes to offer no more than a half-dozen scenarios based on the commercial and recreational quotas established last month by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

The council set the overall target at 23.3 million pounds, a slight reduction from 2002, with recreational anglers getting 9.28 million pounds and commercial fishermen slightly less than 14 million pounds.

How each of the nine participating states reaches its individual target is a local decision.

Anglers looking at the management council's preliminary harvest numbers for 2002 might be inclined to ask for a no-holds-barred season. After all, eight of nine states were under their quotas, with Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut about 40 percent below target. Only Virginia -- surprise, surprise -- exceeded its allocation and will have to reduce its 2003 take by 11 percent.

(Nice neighbors, those Virginians. They brag about their conservative bent, but have a history of liberally helping themselves to every resource, from Potomac River water to blue crabs.)

But while anglers might be rubbing their hands in anticipation of a flounder bonanza, experts are urging caution.

Jill Stevenson, deputy fisheries chief for DNR, says anglers should think back 20 years, when overfishing almost destroyed the flounder stock.

During the mid- to late 1980s, the number of spawning adults plummeted 75 percent, and commercial and recreational anglers saw catches dwindle. In 1988, the federal government took over management of the fishery and adopted the state quota system five years later.

The flounder population rebounded, with the spawning population rising 700 percent from 1989 to 2001. The 2000 year class was considered a huge success, and last year the federal experts declared that summer flounder are no longer overfished.

But the 2002 catch was miserable. In these parts, everyone has a theory: low dissolved oxygen levels, dirty water, jetty reconstruction in Ocean City. But the numbers were off almost everywhere, so it has to be something bigger.

My guess is that weird weather disrupted the migratory calendar, keeping doormats and anglers from being in the same place at the same time.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's online maps show that large chunks of the Eastern seaboard had above-average temperatures in March and April. Remember that stretch in mid-April when the thermometer here topped 90 degrees? Meanwhile, off the New Jersey coast, bottom temperatures were running about 7 degrees above average.

So the internal clocks of flounder were running a month or so ahead of anglers, who fell even further behind when the season was closed for 18 days in the height of summer.

Whatever each state cooks up over the next several weeks will have to pass muster with the management council when it meets Jan. 21-23 in Atlantic City.

"It's a pretty detailed process," says Chris Moore, council deputy director. "States take a lot of time now to figure out the best way to reach their quota."

The juggling makes for some interstate raw nerves.

For example, Delaware anglers chafe at having to throw back flounder under 17.5 inches, while just across the Delaware Bay, their New Jersey counterparts have a 16.5-inch minimum. New Jersey, like Maryland, has an eight-fish daily creel limit while Delaware fishermen can take home only four fish.

That's not to say things are ducky here at home.

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