“We need better data!”
That’s been the mantra of recreational fluke fishing fans, charter and party boat skippers, tackle shop owners, commercial anglers, and even the decision makers in the fishery management arena for over a decade now.
Many believe that the current fluke models, and the information marine scientists plug into them to establish catch quotas, don’t accurately reflect what is actually happening beneath the surface of our harbors, bays and oceans.
Fishery management decision makers, however, are bound by federal law through, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, to use the “best available” data, science and stock assessment models to come up with estimates that will rebuild depleted stocks or sustain stocks that are recovered or not overfished.
Lacking flexibility to work around preset reference thresholds, fisheries managers often have their hands tied in terms of management options, resulting in severe regulations that must be quickly placed into effect if certain metrics fall below the trigger points – even for fish stocks recognized as fully rebuilt and not experiencing overfishing. Such is the current case with fluke.
Better data may finally be on the horizon if a grassroots organization called Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF) continues on its current course. The New Jersey-based group came together seven years ago when the fluke fishery appeared in danger of a shutdown. They managed to raise enough funds to hire fishery scientists to perform additional research. The new data was impressive enough to cause fishery managers to reevaluate their numbers and keep the season open throughout the region.
Now, SSFFF is at it again. In a meeting held at The Reel Seat tackle shop in Brielle, NJ last week (the shop is owned by SSFFF board member, Dave Arbeitman) the group announced they have teamed-up with Dr. Pat Sullivan of Cornell University. Sullivan is an esteemed fisheries scientist who has been instrumental in developing fishery stock assessment models for everything ranging from Alaskan halibut to largemouth bass. Working with the current data, plus new data being gathered or passed along by Rutgers, Cornell and other universities, as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS,) the goal is to create a more comprehensive fluke stock assessment model that will incorporate data already in the files, new information now being collected, and future data still to be determined and gathered.
Sullivan is the ideal person to head this program, for few are more or better versed in the nuances of fisheries statistics and models. An Associate Professor of Population and Community Dynamics in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, he holds an M.S. in Fisheries Biology and a Ph.D. in Biomathematics and Biostatistics from the University of Washington. He has chaired or co-chaired three National Academy of Sciences fisheries science program reviews and is also a member of the Scientific and Statistical Committee that advises the New England Fisheries Management Council.
“One of the things we need to look at,” says Sullivan, “is how fluke sex ratios fit into the equation. The current model for fluke assessment is age-structured. Since it’s not looking at the size of the fish when determining fluke mortality, it doesn’t account for the fact male fluke tend to measure less than 18 inches while females get much larger. The majority of the fluke taken under current regulations are females, so you need to factor that into the equation when setting quota limits and regulations. The Rutgers program is also helping us gather information on discards, and NMFS is sending us length data. It all helps.”
For right now, at least, the plan is to get the model up and running by the end of the year, populate it with both existing data and new data sets coming in, and then present it to fisheries managers at the NMFS and AFMSC. Sullivan, it turns out, already has the ears of some serving on these management committees, so he is hopeful the new SSFFF fluke stock assessment model will get serious consideration. Communication with fishery decision makers, he says, will be a key factor in moving everything along.
“There are no guarantees with this,” notes Sullivan. “All we can do is build a more comprehensive model and see how new assessments compare to current ones. In the long run, a more comprehensive model should work better. That should, in theory, help us make better fisheries management decisions so we have fewer crises. If all goes well, the initial model will be done by the end of the year with updates in 2016. By 2017, we could possibly be making decisions based on the new program.”
When Sullivan stated that are no guarantees, he was, of course, talking about fishery managers adopting the newer, more comprehensive fluke stock assessment model. There is one guarantee in all of this, however: it will cost more money to get done. The SSFFF currently has enough funding to see development of the new model through completion of its beta release later this year. To continue after that, however, they will need to raise more.
“No one in this organization,” said Gregory Hueth, chairman of the SSFFF, “takes any salary for this project. So far we have spent over $170,000 in grants, funds and donations to build a better, more comprehensive stock assessment model. We’ve already shown we can get things done and make a big difference so we are going full steam ahead with this project but we’ll need to find additional funding to bring it to completion.”
It should be noted that this is a joint project that has seen contributions from industry stakeholders on both the recreational and commercial fronts, as well as recreational fishermen reaching into their own pockets to help out.
“Although the group was founded in New Jersey, our goal is to improve fluke management throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast,” added Nick Cicero, Sales Manager at Folsom Corporation and an SSFFF founding member. “Our genuine hope is that this sort of effort becomes a model for dealing with fisheries management problems down the road. Rather than user groups fighting, we should band together like this to get the best possible science. Better science should lead to better management decisions.”
For more information about SSFFF, or to contribute, visit: www.ssfff.net or send a donation directly to SSFFF, P.O. Box 86, Brielle, NJ 08730.