Flounder numbers are a guessing game

September 17, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

It's not easy to count fish.

You can't ask a school to hold still for a minute while you squint into the water or do a fly-by survey like bush pilots do with waterfowl.

So, guesstimates are all we have in developing "the best science available," as politicians like to say.

Sometimes, though, the best science turns out to be not that good at all. And outdated or shoddy science leads to suspicions and hard feelings.

These days, that's the case with flounder and menhaden.

We've had some good and some bad years fishing for flounder. Next year could be awful.

Regulators bound by federal law are inching their way toward a drastic reduction in the amount of flounder recreational and commercial fishermen would be allowed to catch.

The next step comes Oct. 25, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission decides which available science it finds most believable.

Although Maryland gets the smallest slice of the flounder pie - about 2 percent of the total allotment - it is a popular fish in coastal bays and with Ocean City fishermen.

Like so many other fish tales this year, the flounder story is tied to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a 30-year-old law that regulates fishing three miles to 200 miles offshore.

When amended during reauthorization a decade ago, Magnuson-Stevens required the rebuilding of the overfished flounder stock. After some legal wrangling with environmentalists, the National Marine Fisheries Service set a recovery deadline of January 2010 and a target figure of 204 million pounds.

But with three years remaining until the deadline, NMFS estimates the East Coast flounder population, or biomass, is just 112 million pounds.

NMFS says there's no way to meet the target without cutting the catch, and it has recommended reducing the total quota from 23.6 million pounds this year to 5.2 million pounds next year. Recreational fishermen along the Atlantic would get a total allocation of slightly more than 2 million pounds, a reduction of nearly 80 percent.

That, says Maryland fisheries chief Howard King, "is a virtual moratorium."

To put it another way, imagine flounder regulations that set a daily two-fish limit, a minimum length of 18 inches and a two-month season. Right now, fishermen on Maryland's shore and coastal bays have a daily limit of four fish, a 15 1/2 -inch minimum and a year-round season. (For Chesapeake Bay fishermen, it's a two-fish creel, a 15-inch minimum and a year-round season.)

Last month, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted for a more moderate cutback to 19.9 million pounds.

ASMFC will have to choose a number. If commissioners guess wrong and the rebuilding plan falls short, the National Marine Fisheries Service could shut down the entire fishery.

But there are questions about the quality of the data being used by regulators. In April, the independent group that advises Congress on scientific issues determined that the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey has "serious flaws in design or implementation."

So the best available science, in this case, may be no better than Magic 8-Ball. It's no wonder people are suspicious.

Magnuson-Stevens is up for reauthorization. Earlier this year, the Senate approved its version. The House is still - no pun intended -floundering around, debating whether to extend the 10-year rebuilding deadline.

"The flounder has become the poster child for Magnuson-Stevens," King says.

Trying to find a compromise that everyone can live with has been Rep. Wayne Gilchrest's mission. As chairman of the fisheries subcommittee, the Eastern Shore Republican is trying to mediate the interests of, among others, scientists, anglers, environmentalists and the Bush administration.

"I understand people's fears in communities where social and economic considerations come into play," he says. "But it's the human condition for there to be way more ignorance than knowledge."

The numbers game is playing out in the Chesapeake Bay, too, where recreational fishing groups are watching the census study involving state and federal agencies and Omega Protein Corp., the commercial fishing fleet suspected of depleting the menhaden population.

The Chesapeake needs menhaden to feed stripers and bluefish and filter water.

Participants in the project have been testing equipment in tanks and by flying it over the Virginia portion of the bay and the Atlantic coast from Cape Charles, Va., to Long Beach Island, N.J.

The agreement between Omega and the state of Virginia calls for a pilot one-week study of the company's catch - about 10 schools of fish.

Once the company's spotter plane has directed a trawler to a school of menhaden and the net has been dropped, a plane operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will survey the catch with a unit similar to the device used by engineers to map topographic features.

A member of the research team aboard the Omega trawler will survey the size and age of the fish and take scale samples.

Under terms of the deal, Omega has agreed to help fisheries managers figure out the size of the bay population, the amount of interaction between the bay and ocean schools, how many menhaden are eaten by predators and the number of larval menhaden in the bay.

By capping commercial menhaden catches by Omega for five years, ASMFC has opened a window for biologists to create "the best science available." Privately, many of those involved in the study believe they will have a pretty good idea of the source of the problem within two years. candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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