Despite concerns, fisheries seem to do well

The 2010 saltwater fishing scene awakes this month with the fluke season and scup season officially beginning on May 15 and May 25, respectively. Actually, the striper season has already opened as of April 15 and, more to the point, some party boat skippers, like those out of Orient, have purchased recreational set-asides. These allotments allow fares to take fluke and porgies according to adjusted size and take limits before the regular season begins. (An excellent piece by outdoor writer Tom Schlichter summarizing this development appeared in Newsday last Friday.) Thus, even as our piece goes to press, some local anglers are already very busy!

These developments represent creative fisheries management, and, whether we agree with the particulars or not, they’re going to be with us for years to come. Despite all the grumbling over restrictive catch sizes and limits, despite the threats of legal action and legislation, and despite the persistent “me” attitude among some (e.g., whatever regulations curtail “freedom to fish” anywhere for any species threaten my so-called constitutional “rights”!), fish managers continue to tweak the regulations. To be sure, data on fisheries has always been dicey, depending on questionable sampling techniques and limited surveys, but efforts to manage these resources have tended to err on the conservative side. The results: some regulations over the 30 years since the passage of the Magnuson Act have been pretty good for many of our northeast species.

Summer flounder or fluke continue to be the most interesting and controversial among the species regulated. The thought of keeping only two fluke per day over 21 inches would seem ludicrous to anglers in the 1970s, when the 14-inch limit was in effect. Fluke over 17 inches were prized, and 7-pounders (those two-footers) were trophies to be bragged about!

Of course, except for a few specialists, we weren’t targeting the doormats then, just taking fluke for the table, and there wasn’t the wide variety of rigs available. A few giant fluke could be culled from the smaller fish by huge baits, jigs and strips, but “silver bullets” and elaborate teasers lay far in the future.

No one can deny the changed profile of the fluke fishery today, though. There seem to be plenty of barely sub-legal fish around 20 inches in the stocks, and the only problem on many days is somehow managing to pick a “mini-doormat” out of the catch while releasing the others.

Fortunately, the major fluke regulations came down from the federal and regional managers while saltwater pros were getting used to a new ethic: catch and release. This began, I think, when anglers had to treat striped bass as a resource in trouble during the moratorium years in the 1980s. Today you’re allowed one bass in the 28- to 40-inch slot and one trophy greater than 40 (although most anglers we know let the big cows swim off after a quick photo and measurement). Releases became commonplace and have spread to pretty much all species except those from the deepest waters.

There are growing signs that cod stocks are beginning to rebuild, too, perhaps because of better management of the northern banks, perhaps because of size limits (22 inches in state waters). Here the slow growth of the fishery and the fact that there are still a few “soakers” around is heartening, although it’s doubtful that this generation will see the Georges Bank jubilees of the 1980s or the Atlantic runs 20 years before that. We were also quite pessimistic about tautog stocks when commercial pressure threatened blackfish a decade ago, but seasonal closure coupled with a four-fish limit seems to have stabilized the blackfish population, and wise anglers often nod to the future by releasing most of the trophy “bulldogs” that are caught on eastern party boats. The tragic decline of two spring fisheries, weakfish and flounder, stands in sharp contrast to the boom in scup. From reports last summer detailing lots of jumbos and sea porgies over 2 pounds, old-timers are reminded of the Peconic and Long Island Sound runs of 40 years ago. Some say that porgy fishing has never been this good in their lifetime. Is this the result of seasonal closures, catch restrictions, or blind luck and a couple of good spawning years? We’ll take it in any case. Speaking of cases, one great Sherlock Holmes tale about a dog (The Hound of the Baskervilles?) hung on a critical fact: the dog didn’t bark (because it recognized the perpetrator of a crime) and Holmes called this remarkable. The state of most fisheries is similar. With all the pressure on food resources, we find it truly remarkable that most of our fisheries seem to be in very good shape. Despite natural skepticism about resource management and despite the headache of regulations, we have to be pleased with the end result.