RFA has it entirely wrong on summer flounder
If you are a fluke (summer flounder) angler in New York you likely understand the ridiculous disparity in regulations between states. Last year we had a 19” size limit and a 4 fish bag, while in New Jersey and Connecticut it was 17.5” and 5 fish. Preposterous given I’m often fishing Ambrose Channel, a cast or two away from a Jersey boat who’s bagging the same fish I’m throwing back. Because summer flounder are rebuilt, and as a result there are a lot of large adult fish around these days, frankly I’m fine with a 19”/4-fish limit, but it’s really freak’n irritating when the guy next to me is throwing “Jersey keepers” in the cooler. Seriously… It’s stupid. It doesn’t make biological sense, and it never has. Anglers know it and managers know it. But interstate politics has allowed the current state-by-state quota allocation system to continue at the behest of the “have states” who have essentially been saying “screw you” to New York.
Finally, this year, NY managers and an ASMFC Summer Flounder Working Group put a lot of time and effort into developing a plausible regional management system. I think it’s a pretty good first stab at a fair way to allocate a “public” resource.
So, I guess when I saw this RFA press release I was a little surprised. Not that the Jersey-centric organization (where I suspect the great majority of RFAs members reside) wouldn’t want to represent the narrow interests of the single state where they are based (at the expense of NY), but because I don’t think they really get it, or maybe just choose not to get it. What’s perhaps more disturbing about the release is that it blames the entire situation on the fact that we were forced (through litigation) to actually rebuild summer flounder, which makes no sense at all. Even if the Council and ASMFC were stupid enough to allow the same sort of overfishing that occurred in the 90s to happen again, while the quotas might be higher, the allocations would still be the same.
For some background on all of this, maybe read my prior two 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 set the overall fluke quota, and then, based on a single year’s harvest (1998 -the last year we fished under consistent coastwide regulations) the states were allocated a share of the overall quota. Of course the stock was badly depleted back in 1998. Because of decades of overfishing, the stock was not only much smaller than it is now, it was composed of mostly small, young fish, because, well, because we were allowing people to kill them all before they could grow to adults.
Fast forward 13 years and we’ve rebuilt the summer flounder stock, precisely because of the firm rebuilding goals and deadlines that the RFA shows such distain for. The rebuilt stock looks entirely different than it did when we were knocking the shit out of them. Back in 1998, the center of abundance appeared to be off southern NJ. But now there are a lot-more older, larger fish around, and those fish seem to prefer the cooler water off of the South Shore of Long Island up through Block Island Sound. There was always anecdotal information showing these fish were moving north and east, but now there’s a scientific “working-paper” (Dave E. Richardson, et.al) that shows these very trends.
Given that most of the fish were off New Jersey in 1998, Jersey got close to a 40% share of the summer flounder resource while New York received about 17.5%. (Other states are fairly minor players, with shares ranging from 2.95% in Maryland to 5.66% in Rhode Island). Since 2003, states have been adopting regulations based on that approach.
As the years progressed and the fish continued to shift north, New York had a real problem constraining harvest to that 17.5% allocation, even after implementing the most restrictive size and bag limits on the coast. Jersey, on the other hand, was able to liberalize because they had that 40% share based on a single year of MRFSS data.
For an awful long time New York was unable to get any relief. But now, due in large part to a push by Governor Cuomo and NY Council Member Tony DiLernia, ASMFC is finally taking a serious look at a regional management system, in the form of a new Draft Addendum XXV to the management plan.
There are three “options” in this Addendum. “Option 1” is the no-action/status-quo option. “Option 2” allows for the sharing of “under-utilized” quota. Option 3 is the regional option, and includes two specified regions: Rhode Island to New Jersey; Delaware to Virginia; and Mass and North Carolina being their own regions. Or… Massachusetts and Rhode Island; Connecticut to New Jersey; Delaware to Virginia and North Carolina as its own region.
Such a regional approach would likely give New Jersey, New York and Connecticut anglers an 18” fish with a 4-fish bag limit. If you are a state looking to maximize harvest at the expense of your neighbor state, that might sound pretty bad, especially if last year you had a 17.5” fish and a 5-fish bag limit. But here’s the thing: New Jersey overharvested their quota by 21% last year (CT overharvested by 67%!). Of course RFA, knows this, and so they are endorsing Option 2: the sharing of “under-utilized” quota, so that states which historically “underfish” may share the unneeded portion of their quota with a state that overfished—such as New Jersey.
However, if we were to go with the sharing Option, there are a lot of uncertainties about how many fish will be available. It really depends on how generous states who underfished want to be, and whether or not a buffer is withheld. New Jersey seems to be counting on all the states keeping their regulations the same, and they are banking on being able to convince ASMFC to give most of the fish to them so they can keep their regulations. Given NY and CT also want some of those fish, I think it’s fair to say that it’s unlikely NJ will maintain their last year’s regulations under fish sharing, and would appear to get a better deal with the region.
The RFA is also concerned about “accountability measures” forcing New Jersey to pay back overages from other states in their region. But that’s not really an issue. Paybacks wouldn’t even be on the table unless the coastal target was exceeded—which hasn’t happened in a number of years. Addendum XXV measures will only be in place for 2014, although ASMFC could decide to extend them for one additional year. After that, unless ASMFC takes further action, summer flounder would again be managed on a single-state basis, and New Jersey would only be responsible for its own harvest.
Even then, there is no real “payback” because the stock is not overfished and overfishing isn’t occurring (it is managed responsibly with precautionary buffers to insure we don’t overfish). ASMFC would simply look at the overage and adjust next year’s measures to insure it didn’t happen again. If ASMFC does decide to extend regional management into 2015, overages would be addressed on a regional basis, with the offending region(s) required to adjust their measures the following year. It’s hard to see how that would make things worse for Jersey, for if regional management is rejected, New Jersey will have the immediate problem of adjusting for its 2013 overage. And borrowing it from other states simply doesn’t appear like it’s going to cut it.
Regardless, all of this distracts from the bigger issue, which is the science. Recreational fishing survey data were never meant to be used on a state level, as the level of precision is simply inadequate. The larger the sample size, the greater the accuracy of such surveys. That is very relevant given all the complaints, particularly from RFA, about “fatally flawed science”, because if we care about “good science,” regional management is the way to go.
And while we’re on the science, I’ve got to point out that RFA has long complained the recreational harvest data is “fatally flawed”, yet apparently that’s only true if it’s keeping them from killing as many fish as they want. They seem to be okay with using “fatally flawed data” for a single year (1998) to determine every state’s allocation. Come on man. Hard not to see the double standard, and the blatant self-interest here. Do they really want better science or just more fish to kill?
Lastly, is RFA really blaming this entire thing on the fact that we’ve rebuilt the stock back to a healthy/ sustainable levels over the last 13 years? Seriously? I mean, rebuilding the stock is a good thing in my book. The fluke fishing in my neck of the woods is better than, well, better than it’s ever been… in my lifetime! I’m stoked about it. My kids are stoked. Yet, the RFA release seems to imply that we should be able to fish the stock at the same levels we were fishing them back before we were required to rebuild them. That is pretty ridiculous. We now have a healthy sustainable stock, and everyone is catching fish. Is it really smart to go back to those years of overfishing? Not so much. I’m running out of space here, but Charlie Witek makes this point much better than I did in his recent blog: RETURN TO BIZARRO WORLD. This is actually a darn good read. If you’ve made it this far, you owe it to yourself to read this. Regardless, no matter what the overall harvest is, the allocations will still be entirely unfair unless we go to a regional system. I mean that’s pretty damn clear.
And frankly, I’m confused about RFA. Do they really only represent New Jersey (at the expense of NY)? In the case of summer flounder, it certainly appears that way. What’s perhaps even more confusing is that their Managing Director is also the President of the New York Sportfishing Federation—which supports regionalization. How does that work?
The overarching point is that this isn’t about pitting anglers against anglers, and businesses against businesses, as RFA claims. It’s about fairness and equity. We really can’t justify the current system anymore. It has to change. And there is a reasonable regional-management proposal on the table that does not overtly punish any state. It makes sense! RFA, if it represents more than just its constituencies in New Jersey, should cease the red herring arguments (e.g. “fighting over scraps”) and endorse cooperative regional management.