Opinion

Summer Flounder Catch Quotas Must Reflect Solid Science

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Contrary to a Nov. 9 John Geiser column, "Environmentalists, anglers at odds over summer flounder fishery," the Pew Charitable Trusts' Environment Group is not calling for closure in 2009 of the summer flounder fishery. Instead, we advocate taking a cue from striped bass management and heeding scientific warnings to take aggressive action to restore summer flounder stocks before it's too late.

Far from closing the fishery, our aim is to save it. We want fisheries managers to follow the best scientific advice available in order to rebuild stocks, bring summer flounder populations back to health and thereby maintain a sustainable fishery.

To do this, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Monitoring Committee recommended a fluke quota for 2008 that has a high probability of successfully rebuilding the stock — 11.6 million pounds. It's true that if federal managers follow this advice to improve the long-term outlook, there will be negative economic consequences in the short term. But there is a way to address those consequences without attacking the science or pressuring managers to avoid making the right decisions.

Instead, we could try to secure federal funding for fluke cooperative research projects. Cooperative research, in which fishermen are paid by the government to conduct fishery survey work, has been used successfully in New England and on the West Coast. It's easy to envision projects conducted on charter boats where detailed information on the catch is collected and sent electronically to federal managers.

We could also design a data collection program with bait and tackle shops, or hire recreational fishermen to collect data on the fluke catch at boat ramps and marinas.

All of these would achieve two goals at once. Federal dollars would go back to the recreational fishing industry to mitigate the economic consequences of the quota cuts and managers would receive better data on the recreational fishing catch.

Another approach is to stop continually increasing the size and reducing the bag limits for summer flounder. Instead, let's take a look at instituting a slot limit, where only fish between certain sizes could be kept. That would serve two purposes. First, it would cut down on the throwbacks and the mortality associated with the current system because fishermen could keep smaller fish. Second, it would conserve the larger fish that scientists have shown contribute more to future generations.

At the core of the controversy, however, lie arguments revolving around the rebuilding target itself and the current status of the summer flounder stock. A number of recreational fishermen have attacked the stock assessment and the data used to produce the rebuilding target, calling the estimate of current population size flawed and not reflective of what they see on the water.

But the data and the model used to develop the target have been reviewed and validated by independent scientists 16 times in 23 years. An international panel comprised of fishery scientists from Canada, New Zealand and Norway, and headed by a professor from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., validated the findings in 2005.

Fishermen say they're seeing more fluke than before. However, this confirms how low this population was due to massive overfishing in the 1980s. Now, because of limits on overfishing, the stock has begun to rebound, to about 20 percent of its historic size. Yet this progress has stalled over the past five years because managers continue to allow overfishing.

Ultimately, we should all share the same goal: a healthy fluke population able to support recreational and commercial fishermen. And the best way to achieve that is through science-based management that allows fishing at sustainable levels, rather than practices that will leave our oceans emptier in the future.