August 6, 2008

Larger East Coast Flounder Harvest Possible

By Kirk Moore, Asbury Park Press, N.J.

Aug. 6--A scientific reappraisal of the East Coast summer flounder stock shows the flatfish population is much closer to a full recovery than previously thought, a finding that could allow the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to move today toward allowing a modest increase in fishermen's catches for 2009.

"This is the first time in years that overfishing is not occurring," said scientist James Weinberg of the federal fisheries science center in Woods Hole, Mass. "But it is also not rebuilt yet. . . . We're about 70 percent toward the rebuilt value."

Under a number of options put forth by a stock assessment review committee, the council could conservatively increase this year's 15.76 million-pound coastwide catch limit to 17.86 million pounds for 2009. Even that modest, 2 million-pound increase would be a relief to fishermen, particularly the recreational industry, which has struggled with increasing minimum size limits and shorter seasons for flounder.

Despite continued improvement in the size of the flatfish population, the fishery has been limited by federal and council officials, who are obligated by federal law to meet a Jan. 1, 2013, deadline for reaching a calculated biological target for the flounder stock.

The findings presented to the council by Weinberg here Tuesday moved those goalposts closer. Instead of a 197 million-pound target for the spawning adult flounder population, scientists recalculated that value at 132 million pounds -- making it more likely to be achieved in the next four years.

Weinberg said the stock assessment committee met for four days in June to wrestle with data about summer flounder, also known as fluke. They also have input from the fishing community; the New Jersey-based Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund hired West Coast scientist and stock assessment specialist Mark Maunder to take a close look at the data and assumptions that go into the fluke population models.

The processes resulted in several adjustments, most notably in the calculations of aging and natural mortality among summer flounder, Weinberg said. The scientists found there are probably more older fish in the population -- up to a maximum 12 or 13 years of age among the oldest survivors -- and more smaller male fish are in the stock while the weight of older females is lower.

Those statistics have implications for the mathematics of population estimating and to the stock assessment findings, Weinberg said. At present fishing levels, about 25 percent of the flounder population is removed every year -- way down from the 87 percent caught at the peak of overfishing at the end of the 1980s, he said.

There have been steady additions of young fish annually in most years, typically about 40 million new fish a year, Weinberg added.

Council members asked what the maximum annual catch could be once the biological target of 132 million pounds of spawning adults is reached. Weinberg said the team estimated that at 28.9 million pounds -- ironically not too far from a 30 million-pound annual catch foreseen in 2005.

But that marked the last high point of optimism about summer flounder. Warning that recreational fishermen were overrunning their catch shares, the National Marine Fisheries Service forced the council to drop the 2006 catch to 23.6 million pounds, and those numbers have declined since then amid recriminations over the recreational catch and doubts about the surveys used to assess anglers' efforts.

The council meets this morning to make its 2009 proposals, but the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey remains a wild card. NMFS officials have warned they will act if the reports show overfishing is occurring again.


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