Flounder limits not likely to change

OUTDOORS

January 25, 2004|By CANDUS THOMSON

Here we go again.

It's time to play that popular angler game show, "How Big is My Flounder?"

That's right, officials at the Department of Natural Resources are asking folks in the studio audience what they'd like in a summer flounder season this year.

Behind Door No. 1 is a 16.5-inch minimum size, eight-fish-per-person daily creel limit, with no closed season.

Behind Door No. 2 is a 16-inch minimum size, three-fish daily creel, with no closed season.

Behind Door No. 3 is a 15.5-inch minimum size, two-fish daily creel, with no closed season.

Or you can play it safe and stick with last year's winner, a 17-inch minimum size, eight-fish daily creel, with no closed season.

It's a game we play every year after the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council give each of the nine "flounder states" a recreational quota.

Maryland's 2004 target is 131,000 fish. The four options are the formulas chosen by state biologists to ensure the allotment isn't exceeded.

The choices remind me of that old sixth-grade math problem: If an Amtrak train leaves Chicago at noon westbound at 40 mph and an Amtrak train leaves Des Moines at noon eastbound at 30 mph, where and when will they break down?

I never got that one right.

And apparently some of the gatekeepers in states to our north didn't major in math, either. According to preliminary numbers released by the two governing bodies, New York exceeded its quota by 110 percent. New Jersey was over by 9 percent. Connecticut was 6 percent over the top.

The other six states stayed legal. Maryland, with a 2003 quota of 122,000 fish, caught only 40,294.

That gaping margin, naturally, prompted a bunch of anglers to call for relaxing the standards. The Maryland Saltwater Sportfisherman's Society is lobbying for a 16-inch minimum, four-fish creel.

The group's leadership argues that commercial trawlers parked one mile off the coast are scooping up all the big fish. Henry Koellein, president of the Atlantic Coast Chapter of MSSA, says the fact that Maryland hasn't come close to reaching its quota in the last two years means the size and creel limits are "a cruel joke."

"Surveys bear out the fact that the recreational fishermen in Maryland average less than one-half a flounder per angler, per trip," Koellein argues. "Many area anglers are either moving north to [Delaware's] Indian River Inlet or south to [Virginia's] Chincoteague Inlet and enjoying better fishing in both locations."

Koellein and others pleaded their case for easing restrictions Tuesday at a well-attended hearing in Ocean City.

It ain't gonna happen, and here's why.

Your memory bank only has to go back to 2001, when Maryland exceeded its quota and had to close the 2002 season in July and August - prime vacation time in Ocean City - as a make-good to avoid penalties.

This year, New York's quota has been cut 48 percent; New Jersey's, 1 percent.

As usual, folks are finding fault with the harvest and stock data collected in the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey.

Herb Moore, lobbyist for the Recreational Fishing Alliance, says if New York and New Jersey anglers overfished, it should be reflected in increased charter boat trips, marine fuel use and bait sales. Those numbers, however, don't support a fishing frenzy.

But just as in 2002, when Maryland's catch was miserable, the culprit may be another factor - weather.

Remember the news stories of last summer about a "coastal upwelling," a weather phenomenon in which warm surface water is blown out to sea and replaced by rising colder water. Surfers, swimmers and divers all felt it. Perhaps flounder did, too.

During late July and early August, the commercial flounder boats moved farther off shore, into warmer waters, and Ocean City anglers noticed an increase in the number of huge, cold-weather-loving rockfish, which usually don't show up until fall.

Could the cold water have pushed the flounder north to, oh let's say, New York and New Jersey? Look at the chart. States from North Carolina to Delaware are below quota, the next three states up the coast are above and the northern two are slightly below quota.

Marty Gary, DNR's point man on flounder, says maintaining the status quo is the best option to ensure the quota is not exceeded. The other three options listed above are in order from lowest to highest risk.

So far, he says, 43 percent of anglers commenting on the four options favor the 16-inch minimum, three-fish creel.

To be sure your comments will be registered by the authorities, e-mail them to mlgary@dnr.state.md.us or mail them to Gary at DNR, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis 21401. The deadline is Feb. 6.

Countdown to ecstasy

While we're talking numbers, here's a few to warm the heart.

On March 15, the hardiest among us will be out on the Susquehanna Flats for the start of the catch-and-release season. Dates with guides such as Richie Gaines, "Walleye" Pete Dalhberg, Norm Bartlett and Mike Benjamin are going fast, so don't poop around.

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