Rulemakers to limit catch
SECAUCUS ? Regional and state fishing regulators made final recommendations on Tuesday for a relatively modest cutback in next year's summer flounder catch ? but red lights are flashing in the federal management bureaucracy, whose own experts warn that scenario means recreational anglers are likely to overrun the catch quota yet again in 2008.
At a joint meeting, the National Marine Fisheries Service's Northeast regional administrator, Patricia A. Kurkul, pointedly warned that the agency aims to stem those estimated catch overages, which a federal angling survey has reported virtually every year since the early 1990s.
NMFS, which has the last say on setting 2008 fishing rules, is still in its own rulemaking process, but "I can tell you we are serious about eliminating overfishing in this fishery" in 2008-09, Kurkul told members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
In a Nov. 26 letter to the council, Kurkul reiterated a warning from her boss, NMFS chief William Hogarth: Another overrun next summer could result in federal waters being closed to flounder fishing for the rest of 2008, and a full lockdown moratorium on the Shore's most popular sport and food fish in 2009.
"The system has the potential to destroy the very thing it manages," said Ray Bogan, a lawyer for United Boatmen, a trade group of party and charter boat captains who have seen some members drop out of the industry because of flounder restrictions.
"We're not going to have the boats, we're not going to have the marinas," said John Toth, president of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association. "We're environmentalists at heart. Save the fluke, but don't kill the fishing industry while you do it. . . . There's a train wreck coming."
Catch totals in dispute
Fishing advocates vigorously dispute the accuracy of recreational catch estimates, which come from the federal Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey, a system originally designed to measure Americans' annual participation in saltwater angling.
For want of other data sources, MRFSS reports have become the de facto milestone for gauging how many summer flounder are being caught. The last "wave" of reports recently analyzed suggest that recreational fishermen may have taken in 30 percent more fish than the council and commission planned for 2007.
In turn, those excess catches are slowing down the growth of the summer flounder population, according to government science advisers, who believe the flounder spawning stock biomass could double by 2013 if fewer fish are killed by fishermen.
"Industry data has been used in every other fishery plan," but party boat captains' effort to get their logbooks incorporated has been futile, said Tony Bogan of United Boatmen.
The council and commission confirmed their preference for an East Coast catch limit of 15.77 million pounds in 2008, down from 17.1 million pounds this year. Environmental activists have asked the fisheries service to enforce a lower quota, 11.64 million pounds, which science advisers last summer said has a much better chance of hitting the growth targets.
Seeking middle ground
"We are not arguing for a moratorium. I'll say that flat out," said Lee Crockett, who heads fisheries reform efforts for the Pew Charitable Trusts. But fishing advocates are mistaken in calling for changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act because of the fluke situation, he added.
"Ending overfishing was the primary thing Congress wanted to do in the reauthorization" of the law last year, Crockett said. "They carved out an exemption for fluke" by extending the rebuilding deadline three years to 2013, he said.
"What I'd much rather do than going to war over changing the law is looking for ways to fix this," Crockett said.
Environmental groups and fishermen should work on ways out, such as a catch reporting system and "slot limits" that would allow fishermen to take a limited number of smaller fish daily while achieving overall conservation goals, he said.
Technical advisers suggested going to an across-the-board, coastwide daily fluke limit of 19-inch minimum fish size and two fish per angler for 2008. But the council and commission voted to maintain state-by-state rulemaking that's been allowed since the 1990s, with the hope that states can adjust as the catch is estimated.
That latter concept, called conservation equivalency, has come under some criticism from experts who say it's partly to blame for the council's and commission's apparent inability to rein in recreational landings of summer flounder.
A coastwide rule is also preferred by angler advocates from New York, who say they are penalized by a 19.5-inch minimum size, the highest of any state.
"Now we're looking at going up again (in minimum size) under conservation equivalency," said Pat Augustine, a New York representative on the council. On Long Island, he said, party boat and bait and tackle businesses "are dying, they're dying daily."