Moving Forward With Fluke

Some progress made on summer flounder allocations, but we’re certainly not out of woods yet

Summer Flounder Regulation Changes

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Last week I reported on the always-contentious state-by-state summer flounder allocation issue.  I did so because the Mid Atlantic Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had some big choices to make this week at our joint meeting.  If you are not familiar with the issue and/or did not read last week’s blog, I highly suggest giving it a look before moving on:  Nuts and Bolts…  New York Gets Screwed.

To put it as briefly as I possibly can, as the summer flounder stock has rebuilt, it appears to have shifted north and east.  However ridiculous this may be, the baseline for the current state-by-state quota allocation, is based on a single year – 1998 – of MRFSS data, when the stock was badly overfished.  Of course the dynamics of the fluke fishery today are quite a bit different than they were during 1998.  The bulk of the stock appears to be off of Long Island up into Block Island Sound, whereas in 1998 it was off of southern NJ.  Very few people would disagree that this is the case.

New York has pretty much gotten screwed in the last 10 years as more and more fish show up off our coast, yet our allocation does not reflect such a trend (e.g. New Jersey has 40% of the allocation and New York has 17.5%).  To constrain harvest so that we don’t go over that quota, we have the most restrictive size and bag limits.  Of course I’m an advocate for constraining harvest to ensure a sustainable fishery, but when we’re fishing on the same stock in some of the same bodies of water under regulations that are far more conservative than the state right next to us, well, it’s just stupid, not to mention unfair.  What’s incredibly annoying is that given the obvious movement of fish (not just anecdotal, there is indeed science to support this) such allocations have yet to be revisited.  Because,  well, because the states that have greatly benefited from such an allocation have refused to allow that to happen.

In that respect this meeting, unfortunately, wasn’t much different.  The usual people were making the usual arguments to prevent any reexamination of the current allocation.  A few significant things to note here however:  At the request of the Council, the Science and Statically Committee (SSC) reviewed the Richardson paper referenced in my last blog, which sought to prove such redistribution.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised when the SSC picked apart the paper, as groups of scientists often do.  Unfortunately, they came to the conclusion that the paper didn’t definitively show a major stock redistribution.  Certainly, the Richardson paper appeared to me to show such a stock shift, but perhaps it didn’t go far enough it its analysis.  Regardless, anyone who spends a significant amount of time on the water has seen and acknowledges such a shift.  The Richardson paper simply provided some science to back it up, although that science didn’t pass a peer review.  As you might imagine, those Council and Commission members who wanted to keep their state allocations, however inequitable they might be, seized on the opportunity.  However, it was very encouraging when the majority opinion that there has indeed been a stock shift, prevailed.  To me that was a good initial indication that we would head in the right direction.

We were then presented with the Draft Addendum XXV to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea FMP, which, at the request of the Summer Flounder Working Group (referenced in last week’s blog) and New York State officials, seeks to address the perceived and real inequity of current state-by-state management.  The Addendum lays out several mandatory summer flounder management region options. The utility of such regions is that they would account for the stock redistribution as well as the states’ shared waters.  So instead of having different regulations for different bodies of water, the states within the region would have a regional size limit, possession limit, and closed season that would constrain landings to the level of the combined quota of the states within the region.

Two things about this regional system.  One, it won’t have the utility of giving us a new allocation baseline.  As mentioned last week, going to a coast wide measure (the same size and bag limit across the states) for a few years, would have given us a clear picture of what the stock really looks like now as opposed to what it did when it was badly overfished in 1998, time of the last baseline.  In other words, if we were to have such a coast wide measure in place for a few years, we could arrive at new allocations based on up-to-date science.  But of course, while going to such a coast-wide measure would have been the right thing to do from a management and science perspective, it would have disadvantaged a few states (although only in the short term), particularly those in the southern region that simply don’t have many 18” fish.  The bottom line is that there just isn’t the political will to do this.

Dividing the coastal states into regions detailed in the addendum allows states the flexibility to mitigate disproportionate impacts resulting from a coast-wide measure while still providing some relief to the states, particularly NY, that are getting screwed by the current system.  Having such regions would probably be next best thing from coast-wide measures.

After lots of debate, the management regions were whittled down.  This is where things get complicated, but it looks like there will be some variation of four regions.  Mass may be its own region, or it may be grouped with RI.  Or RI may be grouped with NY and NJ.  Or, NY and NJ may be its own region.  It looks pretty likely, given Delaware’s comments that they prefer be grouped into a region with VA and MD, that the DE, MD and VA region will be a given, and NC will likely be its own region.

Of course, during all this debate, there was a motion to remove the regional management approach all together, and stick with a state-by-state/conservation equivalency system that clearly disadvantages NY.  That motion unsurprisingly came from RI and was supported by NJ, the two states that really benefit in the form of liberal size and bag limits from the current system.  There was even some discussion of making each state its “own region” although I’m not sure what the hell that would accomplish.  In the end however, ASMFC clearly voted to put the Addendum out to public comment and to have preferred alternatives by Feb, so that such regional management measures, should we go that way, could be implemented by the 2014 fishing season.

The ball then went back to the Council, which of course voted for “conservation equivalency” instead of coast-wide measures.  New York voted that way as well, with the clear understanding that ASMFC was considering regions under such a conservation equivalency program.  New York introduced a resolution to “recommend” regional management, but surprisingly, that motion failed, given the consensus appeared to be that the Council wanted to see what a finished Addendum looked like before making such a recommendation.

One thing to keep in mind here, such regions would only be for one year and would need to be reconsidered again in the following fishing year.  Sure we may choose to implement the regions again, but the regional system we are talking about now is far from a long term fix.  That said, the Council’s Executive Committee initiated a long-term action on Tuesday when it voted to prioritize the development of an Amendment to their Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Seabass FMP that would address the current management issues that exist in the summer flounder fishery.  On Thursday this motion unanimously passed at full Council.  Of course, such an amendment would likely take around 3 years to complete and we probably wouldn’t see any long term fix on the water until 2017 at the earliest.  But this is indeed our long-term fix while we are hopefully implementing the short-term one with management regions.

In the end, what does all this mean?  Well, there certainly isn’t a guarantee that we’ll see such regional management in 2014.  ASMFC may eventually vote on the “no action” alternative to the Addendum.  In other words, back to status quo.  That would be bad.  Before, I thought maybe NY had a good case to sue if that happened, based on violations of a few Magnuson Stevenson Act National Standards (Again, see prior blog).  However, the peer-review of the Richardson paper probably negates the “best available science” National Standard Two argument, which was probably the most compelling one.  That’s unfortunate.  I’m not sure what New York’s recourse would be.  The Cuomo administration could I guess sue based on the other referenced national standards, but certainly, the National Standard two argument is the most persuasive, in my mind anyway.

Regardless, I don’t think it will come to that.  At this week’s meeting I saw a clear shift in thinking amongst Commissioners and Council Members and a clear indication that they want this problem addressed.   That’s encouraging to say the least.  Yes, there will be opposition. But I believe, as we move forward, those opposing will become more and more marginalized as the issues become clearer to the public.  All this said, we did move forward with Amendment 15 back in ’04, and that was supposed to fix everything, too.  Yet, in the end, most of the Amendment was gutted.  So it’s hard not to be just a little cynical.

We’ll know definitively after the February meeting.   Stay tuned.  I’ll be sure to let you know how all of this develops.


After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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  1. […] blogs on the summer founder allocation issue:  Nuts and Bolts…  Why New York Gets Screwed, and Moving Forward with Fluke.   In short, way back in 2003, we went to a system where the Feds (NMFS and the Council) would […]

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