Fish Focus: Fluke Futures Hang in the Balance

I realize it’s May according to the issue date on the cover of this magazine, and that if I had even a small shred of decency left in my shriveled editorial heart, I’d use the allotted space here to rejoice in all the wonders of the month that marks the beginning (in earnest) of the new season in salty waters. The weather is nice, I’m thrilled we’ve finally shaken off that interminable winter, and the fishing should get lights-out good for at least a species or two by late-month. But unfortunately, I squandered the last of my decency on Girl Scout cookies, and all I have left for the foreseeable future is a keyboard full of misery and pessimism and doubt.

At the risk of establishing myself as yet another fisheries doomsday prophet, I’ve spent many hours over the last five months discussing the big picture of fluke management with friends in various corners of the industry, and most of us have some quiet concerns about the five-year outlook for that fish and the various fisheries it supports. Speaking mostly for myself here, I have grave doubts about the ongoing reliability of fisheries data, and I’ve all but abandoned hope in the management regime’s ability to act on any important fishing issue in anything close to “timely fashion.” (I submit as evidence the codfish that had begun to rebound south of Block Island some years back and the current state of our striper stock.)

The chief problem fluke face is that they represent one of the last commercially and recreationally-important species that remain open to exploitation more or less year-round in significant quantities. The bigger problem is that, contrary to the state-by-state nature of fluke quota allocations, the big concentrations of summer flounder do not seem to be distributed evenly across the geographic range represented by the fleet targeting them. While state- level management works fairly well in recreational fluke fishing, a good percentage of which takes place inside the three-mile state-waters limit, the overwhelming majority of annual commercial landings are extracted from federal waters (i.e. all waters outside each state’s three-mile jurisdiction) during the winter, when fluke have retreated out to 40 or 50 fathoms along the edge of the continental shelf to spawn.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the coast- wide fishing effort (NC to MA) were spread out across that range. Unfortunately — and this is purely “anecdotal” information with no home in the management process — the majority of the coast-wide offshore fleet is now concentrated on grounds from south of Long Island to south of Nantucket. North Carolina and Virginia, each with substantial percentages of the overall allo- cation, and with winter-period trip limits around 10,000 pounds (as opposed to limits, NJ to MA, that max out around 2,500, January to April) are harvesting considerable amounts of “federal waters” fluke out of what is essentially our own back yard.

Whether it’s the work of climate change— many fishermen are observing a north/northeast shift in the abundance of various species, including fluke— or whether years of grinding the offshore grounds in points south have taken a toll on the southern part of summer floun- der stocks, something has changed. The fluke fishery’s geographic epicenter now seems to be off southern New England. In fairness, the winter drag fishery for summer flounder is nothing new— it has gone on right through what we can all agree has been a major spike in fluke populations since the late 1990s. Just to clarify, it’s not the overall winter land- ings that are cause for new concern. Rather, it’s the relatively abrupt change in the spatial distribution of total coast-wide fishing pressure over the last couple winters that bears attention.

Unfortunately, my own fears for the long-range health of fluke stocks relate primarily to the regulatory system that manages them. Specifically, because federally-permitted vessels land their fish in the states for which they hold complementary state-level landings permits, because they fish against the state trip limits, the landings data isn’t useful in identifying certain problematic fishing scenarios—like the long-range effects of hyper-concentrated fishing pressure on a discrete component of the overall fluke stock. When you add two heavy-hitter quota states with huge winter trip limits to existing pressure on New England grounds for several sea- sons, it doesn’t take advanced degrees in marine biology and population dynamics to see the potential for trouble down the line.

If we do start to see problems by way of sharp decreases in the available fluke in our summer inshore fisheries, I can’t see a way for the regulators to track it through state-level landings data: NC fluke are NC fluke, even if they were caught 50 miles south of Block Island, RI. Worse, when you consider the man- agement track record for attacking problems in proactive fashion, it seems like it takes two years (minimum) from the point regulators acknowledge a problem exists to see the first attempts at a solu- tion. And when that problem is an eight- state federal fluke fleet hammering an area that could probably sustain three, there’s the distinct chance of a resource getting pretty well demolished during the standard management lag.

For the meantime, mercifully, this all purely theoretical. By the last week of this month, we should start to see solid numbers of quality spring slabs coming aboard, and by mid-June, we’ll be living out some of the season’s best doormat hunting. You know how it all works: You don’t know how it’s going to go until it’s happening.

Point of this whole entry is that our fluke- the fluke that are moving inshore from 30 or 40 fathoms as you read this— are under considerable strain as a com- mercial fleet with dwindling alternatives does its best to plod forward in a totally dysfunctional management climate. The trick with this type of fishing scenario is that we won’t know there’s a problem until the problem is on top of us. Keep an eye on the fluke fishing you experience as the weeks roll, and know that if things start to fall apart, we’re going to have to make one hell of a racket to get it straightened out again.