Four prominent environmental groups late yesterday urged the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to take emergency action to close the recreational season on summer flounder, one of the East Coast's most popular saltwater fish. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the National Audubon Society (NAS) requested that ocean waters from Maine to Florida be closed to recreational catch until measures are adopted to control recreational fishing impacts on this important fish species.
Summer flounder (also known as "fluke") is a mainstay of the Mid-Atlantic commercial fishery, and a popular sport fishing target. Fluke populations and landings crashed precipitously during the late 1980's as a result of overfishing in both sectors, declining from landings of almost 70 million pounds in 1980 to less than 15 million pounds in 1990. Aggressive rebuilding plans implemented in federal waters beyond three miles from shore by the Mid- Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and in state waters by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) have begun to turn the tide, and populations are beginning to recover. However, it is anticipated that it will take up to 10 years to rebuild the population to healthy and sustainable levels.
Progress in rebuilding fluke populations, however, is now threatened. Both commercial and recreational harvest limits are routinely being exceeded. Overruns of commercial quotas are subtracted from subsequent years' quotas. Recreational quotas, however, remain targets which are routinely overrun, often significantly, with no consequences for future allowable catches. "Recreational anglers caught more than seven million pounds of flounder in excess of quotas during 1996 and 1997," said Dr. Douglas N. Rader, senior scientist with EDF. "Projections of 1998's recreational catch, based on mid-year numbers, suggest that anglers will take over 20 million pounds of fluke - almost three times the 1998 recreational quota."
These overages threaten the summer flounder recovery currently underway. "Successful recovery depends upon compliance with catch restrictions in both commercial and recreational sectors," said Dr. Carl Safina, director of NAS' Living Oceans Program. "We are simply kidding ourselves that we can rebuild these populations unless we constrain both commercial and recreational catch to acceptable levels."
The groups requested that NMFS and ASMFC act immediately to impose closures on recreational landings of summer flounder for the rest of 1998 and thereafter until measures to control recreational mortality are in place. "Federal law requires the agency to enforce the quota restrictions," said Sarah Chasis, senior attorney for NRDC. "The Mid- Atlantic Fishery Management Council has failed to do the job, so NMFS must."
Emergency actions of the type requested are unusual but not unique. NMFS acted just last week to halt the recreational season for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico after similar overruns were detected. "If ever there was a time for bold action this is it," said Robert Irvin, vice president for marine wildlife conservation with CMC. "Every day more summer flounder die from fishing when they should be left in the water to spawn and rebuild this critically important fish population."