What's Good for Bass is Good for Flounder

Publication: Providence Journal

Author: Lee R. Crockett

10/31/2007 - Recently, when President Bush called for an end to commercial fishing for striped bass in federal ocean waters, he highlighted one of the rare success stories in the management of America's marine fisheries. Not so long ago, the populations of this immensely popular game fish were on the brink of collapse. However, the imposition of a 10-year fishing moratorium saved them from going the way of cod and other fish that once were abundant in U.S. waters but no longer are.

The question now is whether or not we can learn from our success and do the same for summer flounder, another popular mid-Atlantic and Northeast game fish that has been subjected to overfishing for years.

Like stripers, also popularly known as rockfish, the summer flounder is one of the most popular sport fish on the East Coast. Unlike the striped bass, however, its population levels are far from healthy, the result of overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution.

The management approaches for striped bass and summer flounder have been as different as night and day. After striper populations crashed in the early 1980s, Congress and fishery managers, at the prodding of recreational fishermen, took aggressive action to turn striped bass around - instituting a moratorium along most of the East Coast in 1985.

Ten years later, managers declared the once decimated populations fully recovered, and the moratorium was lifted. Today, striped bass has become the poster fish for successful management.

In contrast, fishery managers have responded to the summer flounder crisis by allowing continued overfishing to minimize short-term economic costs. But in 2000, a federal court finally forced those responsible to get serious about rebuilding. Managers began to take more aggressive action, and the populations of the fish also known as fluke responded.

As a result, summer flounder levels have increased fourfold, but they are still only about half the size of what scientists consider healthy.

Yet even though summer flounder populations have not fully recovered, several powerful fishing groups are urging members of Congress and the National Marine Fisheries Service to let them catch more of the fish, despite contrary recommendations from scientists. These same groups want to weaken the very conservation measures Congress passed last year as part of the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation's primary federal fisheries law.

The debate over fluke is the first on-the-water test of the new law.

Congress very clearly mandated that fishery managers should listen to scientists when setting annual catch limits. Now, the National Marine Fisheries Service can either enforce the law by setting the catch limit for summer flounder at the level recommended by scientists or succumb to industry pressure by allowing overfishing to continue. How the agency responds will set an important precedent for the rest of the country.

Weakening federal law and ignoring the science on summer flounder is shortsighted. As the striped-bass example demonstrates, aggressive action to rebuild fish populations provides long-term benefits that we can all enjoy, and are well worth the short-term sacrifices that are required to bring the populations back to healthy levels.

Lee R. Crockett directs the Federal Fisheries Policy Reform Project for the Pew Environmental Group at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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