The summer flounder stock is keeping on its strong growth trajectory, and managers this week voted for a 7 percent boost in potential 2012 landings ? to a new high of 31.6 million pounds.
It could herald a return to the boom fishery of the 1980s, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission are playing this hand very cautiously.
At a joint meeting Wednesday in Wilmington, De., members from both boards challenged recommendations to hold down the catch limits to account for estimated bycatch and discard of smaller fish ? 600,000 pounds on the commercial side, and an estimated 2 million to 3 million pounds among recreational anglers.
But this is the first time the council and commission are applying strict new accountability measures required by Congress, and in the end they went with the conservative recommendations for 2012 landing limits: 18.95 million pounds on the commercial side and 12.63 million pounds recreational, after accounting for discards and catches used for research projects.
?We?re really happy to hear this,? said Greg Hueth of the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund, which helped fund science that figured into a reassessment of the fluke stock. Assessment scientist John Maunder recently published a paper on flounder mortality that came out of research supported by the fund, ?and we?ll have more information coming down the line to keep this going,? Hueth promised.
But Hueth cautioned there should not be a rush to liberalize conservation rules, like minimum sizes that have frustrated anglers for years.
?The way it is right now, everyone is catching fish. Everyone would like smaller fish. But be careful what you wish for,? he said. ?In order for us to get smaller fish, we have to have a reliable way for the National Marine Fisheries Service to count the catch?That?s the reason we have to be careful. You never know how NMFS will count fish.?
Come November, the Mid-Atlantic council and Atlantic States board will meet again to hash out details like size limits, and the National Marine Fisheries Service will be reviewing data to certify summer flounder will be rebuilt as of Jan. 1, 2013 as required by law
The spawning stock biomass is already at 123 percent of the 132.4 million pounds target, Mid-Atlantic council analyst Jessica Coakley told the assembly in Wilmington.
After years of stock growth, summer flounder seemed to suffer a spawning stall-out in the middle of the last decade, and for 2008, NMFS decreed a 15.77 million overall catch limit ? the year when ?we were looking at going out of business,? Hueth recalls.
The crisis pitted fishermen against environmental groups, and even stalled reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act until the recreational industry obtained a rebuilding deadline extension through this year.
Then nature provided the biggest year class seen since the early 1980s.
?We?re pleased with the outcome. This is the way rebuilding plans are supposed to work,? said Lee Crockett of the Pew Environmental Trusts federal fisheries program. ?A few years ago people were blaming environmental changes, and saying the flounder stock had reached a plateau and would never get bigger again.?
With the low 2008 quota, ?right after that it skyrocketed. To me that means they got the quota to where it needed to be,? Crockett said. The reassessment of flounder showed how ?science should be evolving over time,? he said. ?People say that shows the science was wrong. I don?t look at it that way. It shows the scientific process is working.?
Hueth said it would not have happened that way without the support and donations from anglers and recreational businesses that brought new science to the debate.
?We tried to do it with the politicians, and they always went with the highest bidder. I?m not saying that to put anyone down, it?s just the way I?ve seen how things work,? Hueth said. ?We are not high bidders. We had to come to the table with scientific information.?
Another reassessment in New England staved off a crisis over Atlantic pollock, when new numbers showed the species was more numerous than thought and fishery managers need not shut down the region?s fledgling catch-share groundfish sectors.
Once NMFS certifies summer flounder is rebuilt, other issues like minimum sizes can be revisited, Crockett said.
But after so many years of drama, the recreational community should be in no hurry to over-reach and endanger what?s been won, Hueth said.
?We?re going to have a great September here,? he predicted. ?We don?t have black sea bass (because of season closures), so we need this.?