Flounder

The Atlantic County Public Library in Galloway Township was packed for a meeting last month about proposed flounder regulations. Another meeting set for next week was postponed and is expected to be rescheduled for April.

Disapproval of the proposed reduction in the summer flounder catch is nearly unanimous.

Fishers don’t like it and will do everything they can to fight all five options suggested for cutting the already reduced flounder harvest by 40 percent. They’re packing hearings, signing petitions and pressuring legislators.

Lawmakers have responded. Five N.J. congressmen, including both senators and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, sent a bipartisan letter asking the outgoing U.S. secretary of commerce to order the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make a new assessment of flounder populations before reducing the catch. That didn’t happen, so a similar appeal will be made to the new Trump administration.

A resolution along the same lines passed the Assembly on Monday, sponsored by Vince Mazzeo and supported by Chris Brown. It’s being fast-tracked to send it to NOAA before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meets next month and possibly gives final approval to one of the catch-reduction options.

This kind of strong public and bipartisan support usually indicates how an issue will be decided, and that may be the case here. With this much political and public lobbying, even the regulators might cooperate. But will the fish?

At bottom, what everyone wants is to turn back the clock to days when flounder fishing was much more satisfying, when you could drift fish a summer tide for a couple of hours and be pretty certain you’d bring home the freshest fish dinner.

When some of the today’s fishermen were kids, the U.S. population was half what it is now. More fishers -- recreational and commercial -- are chasing a decreasing number of fish, and pursuing them more effectively and ardently.

Overfishing is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons, in which individuals fairly pursuing their own interests together deplete a public resource and collectively work against their own interests. Fortunately, fish can be a sustainable resource and might return to populations that remain stable even with a larger harvest.

But only in the last quarter century has awareness of overfishing led to efforts to restore fish, so the science and regulation don’t have the experience needed to deliver consistent results. Catch limits resulted in a welcome rebound of striped bass, for example, but have failed since 1992 to increase northern Atlantic cod.

Scientists and regulators are proposing limiting individuals to two or three flounder in summer 2017, down from a possible nine (combining ocean and bay limits) last year. They also want to increase the size for legally kept flounder from 17 or 18 inches last year to 18 or 19 inches this year.

The effectiveness of only taking the biggest flounder is a point challenged by fishers, who say that such fish are spawning females needed to sustain the population. Maybe marine biologists should consider that, or maybe they already have.

However imperfect the science of fish populations and their management, it is society’s best path to sustaining this valuable public resource. We think therefore that regulations to restore fish must ultimately be left to scientists and technicians.

In this case, if the marine biologists have a high degree of confidence in their data and approach, they should hold firm to their 40 percent catch reduction. If they’re less certain of flounder populations or the effectiveness of their limits, and if they think a complete collapse of the flounder fishery isn’t imminent, they should study some more and consider more options before nearly ending what is the summer’s most popular shore fishing.

Fishers and their representatives may well get the catch reduction postponed while more studying is done. They should be careful what they wish for. It’s possible that prevailing now could mean an effective end to flounder fishing for a long time. Just ask the Georges Bank cod fishers.

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