Volume XI, Issue 4 ~ January 23-29, 2003

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| Burton on the Bay | Chesapeake Outdoors | Sky Watch | Tidelog |

Burton on the Bay

Flounder is Fine, But We’ve Got to Put
Conservation First

Patience is the best remedy for every trouble.
– Titus Maccius Platus: 254bc-184bc

Fishermen need patience in the pursuit of their sport. Those who don’t have it oft times turn to another endeavor. We are reluctant to admit it, but not far off the mark were the words of the unknown observer of long ago who coined the phrase that fishing was a jerk at one end of a rod waiting for a jerk at the other end of the rod.

But patience among fishermen of these times goes beyond passing the time between jerks at the other end of the rod. Sports and/or commercial fishermen have overfished more than a few popular species. And now it’s payback tim

Guarding the Stock
Federal and state fisheries managers have responded in most instances by implementing curtailments to limit catches until a given species responds by rebuilding its stocks to an appropriate level.

When curtailments are put into place, not infrequently there is an outcry loud and clear from those who fish the species. Those same protesters were probably among those who should accept at least part of the blame for the fish in question being in precarious numbers.

Their complaints usually do little if any good, for fisheries scientists and managers as a whole are obligated above all to consider the welfare of fish. The wishes of fishermen must play a secondary role in deliberations. If not, the species will take longer to recoup its numbers to a point where it can once again be reasonably fished. In some instances, a species in deep trouble — and not afforded substantial protection — could virtually be wiped out.

With most species that once were allowed fishermen in any number and size they wanted, fisheries managers in recent years have implemented size and creel limits for sports fishermen as well as size and quota limits for commercial fishermen. In some states, commercial fishing for prized game fishes has been banned outright.

It is only natural that once a species comes under severe restrictions or is placed on the list for a moratorium, fishermen are impatient for the curtailments to be lifted. Many sportsfishermen, though certainly not all, gripe they’re being denied recreational opportunity, often contending that the few fish they catch won’t make a difference. Commercial and some charter fishermen vigorously complain their livelihoods are being impacted. Economics above conservation.

This is why fisheries managers make the tough decisions, decisions based on catches, remaining stocks and other aspects of a fishery. To live up to their obligations and manage the welfare of a species, they have no choice but to turn a deaf ear to those who gripe. They must be truly guardians of the stocks.

Until a decade or two ago, there were no restrictions on many popular fish, especially in tidal and ocean waters. Hook-and-line fishermen could catch and keep as many as they wanted regardless of size. But those days are pretty much over — or soon will be. Species cannot be vulnerable to unreasonable and reckless pressure.

Give Flounder a Chance
Among vulnerable species is the flounder, one the most favored of species targeted by anglers of the Chesapeake and its larger tributaries as well as back-bay and ocean anglers down Ocean City way.

Historically, flounder were like so many fish of the ocean: no size or creel limits nor on the commercial side were they given the protection required to maintain viable stocks. But in more recent years, coastal and some state fisheries scientists and managers became concerned about obvious declining numbers of the species.

This was primarily the case in the ocean at first.

Flounder is referred to as poor man’s marlin, for it’s a fish that can be caught in back bays of the Ocean City and Assateague complex by fellows in their own small craft or rental rowboats. Small headboats also cater to those who want flounder. This is not to imply flounder are second-class citizens of the Chesapeake, for they’re also prized among fishermen of our Bay and its tributaries.

Who doesn’t want flounder? It can also be described as the poor man’s Dover sole, a delicious fish with firm, sweet, white flesh. Many flounder chasers claim the northern flounder, also referred to as a fluke, tastes as good as the renowned Dover sole, which isn’t cheap. Incidentally, neither is flounder any more.

As it became obvious that flounder weren’t responding to early and not very strict protective regulations, fisheries managers gradually tightened the screws, which pinched many who were accustomed to keeping just about all they could catch. After all, flounder was a prize for any table. Pollock, cod and sea bass can match it for flavor, but not for prestige.

Finally, in the past couple of years, coastal fisheries managers decided it was time to really bite the bullet. Flounder were responding to the curtailments, though not as fast as desired. It was time to take the big step: Implement strict catch limits now and hasten the recovery. The uproar was deafening.

Impatient Fishermen
We in Maryland faced a creel limit of eight a day. As if that weren’t bad enough, a flounder you could keep had to stretch to 17 inches. And there came brief closures in catching.

Flounder are a resilient and prolific species when afforded reasonable protection, and fisheries managers have documented much healthier populations as well as continued improvement. But patient though fishermen can be while fishing, they are impatient when awaiting liberalized regulations. Flounder catching and keeping is no exception. The bywords are ‘why wait.’

Many fishermen were willing to accept the creel limit of eight, but they wanted no part of a closure during the summer when the fish are in most available numbers. The 17-inch minimum had to go, most said. They griped they were obliged to throw back many more flatties than they could keep. Rarely did an angler catch his creel limit, and we all know the number of fishermen who want to limit out — practically all.

Previously, different length limits applied for ocean and Bay fisheries. Bay anglers contended the flounder of the Chesapeake (Eastern Bay, mouth of the Patuxent, Hacketts, Poplar Island, the Hooper/Honga complex, Crisfield and lower Potomac, among other spots) averaged smaller than those oceanside. But coastal fisheries managers made the regs the same for both. Not fair, cried Bay anglers. Fishermen are impatient.

The good news is it appears Marylanders caught less than the target in 2002, so basically we can look to continuation of an eight-fish-a-day maximum with a 17-inch minimum both in Bay and ocean — and possibly without any closures.

But we can’t look for major relaxation of the regs (both a reduction in length limit and no closed season) at this time. That would be pushing things too far, too soon. The health of the fishery is paramount.

Curiously, a volunteer creel survey conducted last year indicates that those who fished the Chesapeake for flounder caught on average larger fish than their ocean counterparts.

Results of the one-year test — it covered only one season and just might be misleading — came as quite a surprise to most flounder fishermen, including this one. Still, it appears that once again the limits will be the same in both Bay and ocean this year. No breaks for Chesapeake anglers. But the species is getting a break, which is the bottom line.

Enough said …



Copyright 2003 Bay Weekly
Last updated January 23, 2003 @ 3:13am