Anglers Criticize Data Used To Support Flounder Limits

OCEAN CITY – Citing severely flawed catch data, local anglers this week protested the first season closure for summer flounder in several years in the resort proposed by Maryland fisheries officials for the coming year in an effort to bring the state’s catch totals within the prescribed target number.

According to state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials, the recreational summer flounder fishery in Maryland, which is almost exclusively in the coastal areas along the Atlantic including Ocean City, surpassed it allowable harvest target by around 32 percent last year, forcing state and federal officials to consider a drastic two-prong approach to reducing the catch. According to the federal Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS), which tracks seasonal catch total for various species, Maryland anglers reeled in roughly 90,000 keeper flounder last year, far exceeding the target total of 61,000 for the state.

For that reason, DNR officials are proposing a two-pronged approach aimed at reducing the summer catch to bring to figures in closer to the target of 61,000. The first part is a change in the minimum size of a keeper flounder and the second is a potential closure of part of the season. DNR officials held a public meeting at the Worcester County Public Library in Ocean Pines on Monday to outline the proposed changes and gage the local fishing community’s reaction to them.

The reaction was decidedly cool as local anglers railed against the idea of another inch on the minimum size and another closure of a part of the season. While most are in favor of some conservation measures if the actual date collected suggest they are needed, several anglers reiterated this week the MRFSS numbers are flawed, making the proposals unwarranted at this time.

“We’re all for doing the right thing and if the real numbers suggest a season closure and new creel limits would preserve fish, then I think we would all be on board with that,” said “Bay Bee” Captain Bob Gowar. “The problem is, the numbers are way off. They can’t convince me in any shape or form those numbers are accurate for the summer flounder fishery.”

Most local recreational and commercial anglers claim the MRFSS totals for the summer flounder fishery are off the charts. According to the Maryland Saltwater Sportsfisherman’s Association, local recreational anglers reported catching about 500 keeper flounder last year, while another 1,300 were reported on the commercial side, bringing the total to fewer than 2,000 legal fish, which is light years away from the total projected by MRFSS.

The actual figure is likely somewhere in between, although the MRFSS figure appears out of line at 90,000-plus given the amount of activity targeting flounder in the resort area and the difficulty in catching keeper-size fish at the current 17-inch minimum. Local captains this week scoffed at the notion 90,000 keeper flounder were caught last year in the state and blamed a jaded data collection process for the discrepancy in the totals.

“From bad data you get bad management,” said Captain Monty Hawkins of the “Morning Star.” “The data on the recreational catch of flounder in Maryland cannot withstand scrutiny, not even a brush of it. There needs to be a plausibility test of the data before it is used to deny fish.”

DNR officials on Monday outlined several alternatives for reaching the target number for summer flounder. Widely accepted is increasing the minimum size to 18 inches with a creel limit of three keeper fish. However, proposed season closures are causing the most heartburn for local anglers. Several options include closing the spring season with a start date in June, while other options suggest a mid-summer closure for two weeks in August or from late July to early August.

Other options include closing the fall season, which would shut the fishery down by mid- to late September. The latter is the option favored by the DNR. In a straw vote on Monday, those in attendance at the meeting favored Option B-1, which would open the flounder season on April 15 and close it on Sept. 13, effectively erasing the fall season.

“The biggest problem is the interpretation of the numbers,” said Captain Steve Whitelock of the “Happy Hooker.” “If the numbers were accurate, they probably wouldn’t even be considering any closures.”

Whitelock said catch reports from the local flounder fleet come in far lower than the MRFSS numbers suggest, despite an increase in activity last year.

“All of our boats were down last year, and they make up about 95-percent of the flounder fishery in Maryland,” he said. “Two years ago, we had about 400 keepers and last year we dropped to something like 250 keepers and we carried considerably more people.”

Gowar said if a season closure was inevitable based on the MRFSS figures, he was in favor of the option that would close the flounder season in the fall.

“I don’t like it being closed at all, but if it has to be closed, I guess the fall is the best time for it,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to have to bite the bullet again.”