It was about 18 months ago in a dreary Annapolis cafeteria that anglers and state fisheries biologists talked about the equally dismal state of the flounder population.
Things, we were told, were not looking good. Crummy, in fact.
Flounder pounders would just have to wait for the stock to replenish itself. Reaching a spawning biomass of 53,200 metric tons was critical.
"We have a long way to go until flounder reach that target," warned Phil Jones of the Department of Natural Resources.
Well, shiver me timbers, how news has changed.
A fish census released this month by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council shows that as of Jan. 1, the flounder family has 56,100 metric tons of relatives. As a matter of fact, the flounder population is the highest it has been since surveys began in 1968.
But instead of going out and buying some crabmeat stuffing to celebrate, some members of the recreational angling community are asking themselves how it is that 2,900 metric tons of fish simply appeared between Jan. 14 of last year and Jan. 1 of this year.
You see, this upbeat assessment by the council may seem to contradict Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey data upon which state quotas are determined.
As they did in the Annapolis cafeteria, wary recreational anglers are asking questions: Did the numbers crunchers at the National Marine Fisheries Services who processed the MRFSS data take off their socks and shoes and start doing an actual count? Or does the new information simply confirm the Bible story about the miracle of fish multiplying?
"It shouldn't be a surprise," says Chris Moore, deputy director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. "The 2000 year class was pretty good. Those fish are growing into catchable sizes. We've reduced fishing mortality, and states were under their quotas last year. A 7 percent increase in stock is a modest rise.
"Things are looking pretty good," he says of the stock assessment. "But we're not there yet; we're not totally rebuilt. We're past the halfway mark to full recovery."
He acknowledges while it may seem contradictory, the MRFSS data are "an integral part" of the council stock assessment and "it isn't saying anything different than we did."
But that raises another question. Why did the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's flounder management board postpone its vote on the 2004 state quotas and ask its technical staff for more information?
You don't suppose, as several biologists have speculated, the commission caught wind of the council assessment and decided to sort things out behind closed doors before the August meeting in Arlington, Va., do you?
January a year ago, charter boat captains, tackle shop owners and Ocean City business people called the MRFSS numbers voodoo.
"We doubt the numbers," said Rich Novotny, executive director of the 6,500-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. "Those people don't have a clue how many fish are out there and how many are being caught."
These numbers aren't a matter of hair-splitting for the folks who derive a living from recreational anglers. For example, the owner of the Ocean City Fishing Center, which employs nine people, said the 19-day closure to prevent overfishing during the heart of the summer of 2001 cost him $40,000.
The council stock assessment doesn't make Novotny any less suspicious of MRFSS data.
"It's put together by people sitting behind desks jogging the numbers, not people who are out there every day on the water," he says.
Novotny hopes that DNR will make a "midstream correction" this summer to lower the minimum size by a half-inch.
"We went along with restrictions even though we didn't like it because we want to do what was best for the resource," he says. "A 17-inch minimum isn't realistic. A 17-inch fish is just too tough to catch in Maryland."
Given that Maryland was under its quota by 40 percent last year, you might agree. Those feelings could grow if the cold, rainy spring this year continues that trend.
No one wants to return to the 1980s, when the number of spawning adult flounder plummeted 75 percent, and commercial and recreational anglers saw catches dwindle to nothing. But fisheries managers concentrating on rebuilding the stock are overlooking an important part of the process - rebuilding the public's trust in MRFSS.
In the meantime, make sure you fill out DNR's summer flounder angler survey. You can do it online at www.dnr.state.md.us, or you can call biologist Angel Bolinger at 410-260-8294 and have her mail you a survey packet.
The survey, which runs through Oct. 31, helps the agency track catches and augment the information gathering of the out-of-state agencies.
Besides, the DNR survey information comes from the one source you can trust - you.
What do National Rifle Association officials and the boorish filmmaker Michael Moore have in common?
A) Both are carbon-based life forms.
B) Both have addresses on planet Earth.
C) Each detests the other.
D) All of the above.