(Oct. 10, 2014) Charter boat captains, sports fishermen and marine conservation advocates came to the Ocean Pines library last Thursday to give their take on the summer flounder fishery and new plans that will eventually guide it.
The fishery management plan hasn’t been updated since 1993 and the scoping hearings here and at 13 other spots along the Atlantic coast mark a first step toward a plan amendment, which the national Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and state-level Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will oversee.
“What should we focus on? That’s what the comments that we want to take back is,” said Mike Luisi, Maryland’s designated state official on the council, who helped lead the meeting.
Co-leader Kiley Dancy, fishery management specialist for the council, called the hearings an “early and open process” to develop a “reasonable range of alternatives for further analysis.”
It’s the “first and best opportunity for the public to make suggestions or raise issues before amendment development,” she said.
The major question is whether the current management plan is appropriate for the summer flounder fishery or, if it isn’t, what needs to change.
At present, it has six goals: to curb overfishing; to increase the number of spawning fish; to improve fishery yields; to define guidelines that work on the state and national levels; to enforce regulations; and to minimize the rules needed to achieve those goals.
It allows commercial fisheries to harvest 60 percent of the flounder quota, while recreational anglers take the remaining 40 percent.
The last time the fishery management plan, or FMP, was amended, it set commercial state-by-state quotas based on the flounder catch from 1980-1989. Methods to manage commercial fishing, such as gear used or the fishing season, have changed since then.
Techniques to manage the recreation fishery have also changed since the 1993 amendment, including a recent shift from state-by-state quotas to regional quotas. Changes to management techniques — gear requirements or restrictions, seasonal or area closures, size limits, and quota allocations — are just a few issues that could arise in the amended FMP.
Discards are another key issue, as they have increased in the recreational fishery since 1981 and commercial discards account for 8 percent of the flounder catch since 1982.
Other issues range from changes in the ecosystem to how data on flounder are collected. Here are a few topics local stakeholders raised last week:
Attendees returned to the discard debate several times during the meeting.
Party boat Capt. Monty Hawkins said anglers can curb the mortality rate of discarded flounder — assumed to be around 80 percent — by using the right hooks.
“Hook selection is so basic,” he said. “It’s so easy to recommend a hook to somebody that reduces discard mortality. It’s simple, but it’s not out there at all.”
Dick Nieman, of the Ocean Pines Anglers Club and Maryland Saltwater Sports Fishing Association (MSSA), agreed bycatch remains a problem in the flounder fishery.
An issue Buddy Seigel, of the MSSA and Ocean Pines Anglers Club and a tackle shop employee, raised was the data itself that drives flounder fishery management.
“One set of formulas comes in from the trawlers, another set comes in through the people engaging in commercial and recreational (fishing),” he said. “They’re not even put together in a manner that makes sense and going forward it’s going to the difficult.
“If it’s too difficult to understand, the person explaining it can’t explain it acceptably and that’s what we’ve been getting,” he said.
Seigel hopes for more uniform formulas in the amendment.
Though he doesn’t necessarily see anything wrong with the current 40/60 split of the flounder quota between recreational and commercial fishers, Nieman wants justification for the split in the amended FMP.
“There are various things that have changed. The economics have changed,” he said.
Watkins said he wants safeguards to keep other states from taking a piece of Maryland’s flounder quota.
“We don’t need to be giving anything up, because once you give it up, its really hard to get back,” he said.
Nieman also wants the council and commission to consider new fishing technologies as the plan amendment process proceeds, keeping in mind that equipment advances make fishing more efficient.
“As the electronics get cheaper and cheaper and better and better, targeting the fish gets easier,” he said. “It’s really important that you all protect that stock.”
Frank Watkins, president of the local Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), suggested a more comprehensive approach to ensuring a sustainable flounder fishery, which could include protecting the fish during spawning season and at known spawning locations and studying their migratory patterns.
Ken Wolf, CCA president and a MSSW member, agreed examining the fishery at the ecosystem level is crucial.
“Without that being an integral part, it looks very unprofessional,” he said.
“Ecosystems are absolutely coming in at a higher consideration than they ever have been,” Luisi said in response, though he added the formulas at the ecosystem level can be incredibly complicated.
And the flounder stock isn’t struggling, he said. “The populations proved to be healthy at this point … When you’re at that point of good health, it’s not always necessary for the primary goal to be reductions to keep people from harvesting.
“Instead of seeing ‘reduce,’ I see ‘maintain.’”
The long road to update the summer flounder fishery management plan continues with scoping hearings and other public comment through the fall, which the council and commission will use this winter to identify the top priorities in the new management plan.
Next spring and summer, the groups plan to use those issues to create options for the amended plan, which they will review, refine and approve by summer 2016.
Another series of public hearings will take place in fall 2016 before the council and commission consider the public’s comments in finalizing the plan.
“We’ve got some time to consider all of these different aspects,” Luisi said.
To submit a comment online, visit www.mafmc.org/comments/summer-flounder-amendment or email nmfs.gar.FlukeAmendment@noaa.gov.
Mail written comments to Bob Beal, Executive Director, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 1050 North Highland Street, Suite 200A-N, Arlington, Va. 22201.
Visit www.mafmc.org/newsfeed/2014/summer-flounder-scoping for more information on the summer flounder fishery management plan scoping hearings.