It’s likely few people have written more about summer flounder than Mark Terceiro.
Terceiro has published a 44-page journal article about the science, politics and litigation surrounding the species from 1975 to 2000. A 32-page follow-up covered the period from 2001 to 2010, and another article regarding developments in recent years is in the works.
But it’s Terceiro’s summer flounder stock assessment update, released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in December, that has him in the crosshairs of New Jersey politicians and recreational fishing leaders.
That’s because his report led federal regulatory agencies to reduce this year’s summer flounder catch by 30 percent.
Some say the move will cripple recreational flounder fishing, a multimillion-dollar industry in New Jersey that supports bait-and-tackle shops, boat dealerships and other businesses that cater to fishermen.
“It is based on a questionable, out-of-date stock assessment and a flawed modeling,” Bob Martin, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last month.
But federal fisheries experts, including Terceiro, say they have confidence in the measurements, which show the flounder population has been “experiencing overfishing” since 2008.
“A stock assessment is one of our best ways to estimate the population and status of a resource we manage,” said Kirby Rootes-Murdy, senior fishery management plan coordinator for summer flounder at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, one of the agencies that regulate the species.
Terceiro, a research fishery biologist at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said a lot of information goes into a stock assessment.
“Summer flounder has one of the more complex fisheries,” he said.
“The catch is, from both commercial and recreational, very important — that it be accurate,” Terceiro added. “We try — the government, the states — (to) go to great lengths to make sure the catch reports are as accurate as they can get.”
Those lengths include a mandatory reporting system for commercial fluke landings, observers who go out on about 5 percent of all commercial flounder trips, field surveys of recreational anglers, a self-reporting system for recreational fishermen, academic and state surveys, and random trawl samples from up and down the coast, Terceiro said.
Two of the most important statistics he and other experts look at are spawning-stock biomass and fishing mortality rate, and neither is trending upward for the summer flounder stock.
Spawning-stock biomass, or the total weight of fish mature enough to reproduce, is at 58 percent of the goal set by regulators and scientists, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
If the spawning-stock biomass drops 16 percent, the flounder population will be considered “overfished.” This is different from “experiencing overfishing” and would, by law, set in motion a rebuilding plan for the species likely to be even more restrictive, Rootes-Murdy said.
The other vital statistic is the fishing mortality rate, which measures the rate at which a species dies from fishing. For summer flounder, the rate has been increasing since 2007 and exceeded the overfishing threshold by 26 percent in 2015, according to the ASMFC.
“For most of the history of the (summer flounder) fishery, it seems like we’ve had a higher fishing mortality rate than where we want to be,” Rootes-Murdy said.
“The council is trying to limit the catch enough to bring the fishing mortality rate below the overfishing rate,” Terceiro said.
Those actions to limit the catch have angered many fishermen in New Jersey and prompted state leaders to appeal to President Trump’s administration.
Last month, the ASMFC voted to approve a measure that will very likely limit recreational flounder fishermen in New Jersey to three keepers at 19 inches in the Atlantic Ocean and three at 18 inches in the Delaware Bay for a 128-day season, according to example measures presented in the approved document.
It’s a significant cut from the 2016 regulations, which allowed fishermen to keep five fish at 18 inches in the ocean and four at 17 inches in the bay.
The move will decimate the recreational fishing industry in New Jersey, opponents of the measure claim. It’s a business that is worth $1.5 billion and directly supports 20,000 jobs, Martin said.
“Just when our fishing industry was recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, unelected bureaucrats in Washington use questionable methodologies and outdated science to cut us off at the knees,” U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said in a statement after the vote.
Martin, LoBiondo and state lawmakers have called on Ross to halt the restrictions and order a new benchmark stock assessment for summer flounder. The last such benchmark assessment was in 2013.
Part of the problem for federal experts, in addition to a higher fishing mortality rate and declining biomass, is below-average recruitment, or the number of young flounder in the population. Lower recruitment doesn’t bode well for the future of the population.
Environmental factors could be to blame for fewer young flounder, but scientists just don’t know the reason for lower recruitment, Terceiro said.
As for the benchmark stock assessment, Terceiro doesn’t think it will happen this year. A benchmark stock assessment constitutes a full review of the process for measuring a fishery and is conducted every three to five years, while a stock assessment update plugs new data into the previous benchmark assessment’s model.
“They don’t want to do a benchmark this year. They want to wait until next year when the new catch comes in,” he said. “So I think the plan is to do it in 2018,” but that has not been officially announced yet.
When it is announced, Terceiro and others will go back to the drawing board, analyzing current models and examining new ones.
And perhaps this saga will make it into his next paper on the science and politics of flounder.