News Is Mixed for Fluke Fishermen

Recreational fluke fishermen may get a break in 2012, but commercial fluke fishermen might not. Fishery managers got an earful from the latter during a meeting at the Montauk Playhouse on Monday night. Morgan McGivern

    It’s not a done deal, but the State Department of Environmental Conservation has signaled the possibility that New York’s recreational fluke fishermen will see big improvements in minimum size in the coming year. However, during a Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council “visioning” session held at the Montauk Playhouse on Monday night, commercial fluke fishermen said they were once again getting the shaft. 
    Working from sportfishing and stock assessment surveys, managers see the possibility that the onerous 2010 regulations — a 20.5-inch minimum size — could be reduced by an inch, perhaps by an inch and a half. The current possession limit of three fish per day would stay the same. New York sport fishermen landed 602,000 pounds of fluke in 2011.
    Capt. Joe McBride, speaking for the Montauk Boatmen and Captains Association, said the changes would put New York charter and party boat operators on an equal footing with New Jersey and southern New England boats for hire that have been enjoying a big advantage in the size and numbers of fluke their customers can catch and keep. The regulatory changes must first go through an intricate approval process. A final ruling will not be made until March or April.
    In August, the coastal summer flounder (fluke) resource was declared 100 percent rebuilt. A stock assessment update in October conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service presented a less-rosy picture, but numbers still seemed to justify a more liberal sport fishery, according to Jim Gilmore, the state’s chief of marine resources, primarily because of the fact that New York anglers caught only half of their 2011 quota.
    The news was not good for New York’s commercial fluke fishermen. In fact, Mr. Gilmore, who attended the Monday night meeting in Montauk, said it was likely the market fishery, which already gets only 7 percent of the coastwide quota, will take an additional hit.
    Arnold Leo, secretary of the East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association and the East Hampton Town’s former fisheries consultant, attended Monday night’s meeting. He said that while commercial fishermen were buoyed by the August announcement — as much as a 30-percent increase in landings was projected — the subsequent October “adjustment” had infuriated Montauk’s dragger fishermen.
    Bill Wise is associate director of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University and heads up the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s marine resources advisory committee. “It’s enough trouble even when the initial numbers are correct, but when they substitute other numbers later, it’s not good. It’s my sense that N.M.F.S. was not entirely forthcoming, either purposely or in error in August to have put out tenuous numbers.” A decrease from New York’s 1.3 million-pound commercial quota is being justified as an answer to overfishing.
    The D.E.C.’s Mr. Gilmore said it did not look like the commercial quota would be reduced by much and the final figures would have to wait for new stock assessment data in February.
    “This kind of screwing around is unforgivable. Here we have a rebuilt stock and recreational fishermen are catching way under because the size limit was too large. Had they reduced it by a half inch for 2011, they would have caught their quota. And, I doubt that commercial landings were over the quota because the state just increased the daily fluke limit for the rest of this month. None of it pieces together,” Mr. Leo said.
    At the Montauk Playhouse on Monday night, Chuck Weimar, owner of the Montauk dragger Rianda S, told representatives of the Mid-Atlantic Council and the D.E.C. that it was “the management, not the resource. The resource is there. The complexity of the management is the problem.” Captain Weimar said changing from state-by-state management of species to coastwide management, and from species-by-species management with daily trip limits to a broader, multi-species system with weekly or monthly quotas, would halt the current waste of fish and fuel, but he said, don’t hold your breath.
    On Tuesday he explained that to manage fluke coastwide, quota would have to be taken from New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia to give to New York and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council would not have the votes to make the change. “It would level the playing field. We spent 20 years rebuilding fluke stocks and get nothing,” Captain Weimar said. He added that because most of the fishing takes place in federal waters, outside state boundaries, boats should be able to land wherever it makes economic sense.
    “We’ve had New Jersey fluke licenses for 15 years because we couldn’t deal with New York’s low quota. The fish would go from New Jersey to the New York Market. The fish would get back to New York before we did, but now with fuel close to $4 per gallon it’s not cost efficient. There’s such an abundant resource in federal waters. Southern boats could land here,” good for the economy, Captain Weimar said. “The state would have to do that.”
    He added that the current species-by-species management was causing fishermen to throw back thousands of pounds of perfectly good fish. “If you’re fishing for scup, you throw back the sea bass you catch. It makes us look like the bad guys. There is talk of ecosystem management.”
    “The other thing is the weekly or cumulative trip limits. That right there eliminates discards. Now if you’re fishing for scup and catch 10,000 pounds in a tow and the limit is 8,000 you have to discard 2,000 pounds. You go out the next day and catch 3,000 pounds, and you don’t catch your limit. It’s bizarre this day and age. If you make the limit a cumulative three-day trip, for instance, and you catch it in one or two days, you use less fuel. It’s more efficient. It’s what we need as an industry.”