Captains Facing Summer Flounder Closure Sunday

OCEAN CITY – The summer flounder fishery will close for good in 2009 at midnight on Sunday, but the move announced several months ago is no easier to bear for recreational anglers counting on a strong fall season to make ends meet.

Despite complaints of severely flawed catch data, state officials in March moved forward with new regulations for summer flounder in 2009 including an increased minimum size for keepers and a season closure effective Sept. 13. Federal fisheries managers mandated the new regulations in an effort to bring the state’s catch totals within the prescribed target number, which continues to be off the charts according to those who work the water on a daily basis.

According to the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the recreational summer flounder fishery in Maryland, which is almost exclusively in the coastal areas along the Atlantic including Ocean City, surpassed its allowable harvest target by around 32 percent last year, necessitating a change in the regulations this year. As a result, DNR officials announced in March a change in the minimum size for keepers from 17 inches to 18 inches with a creel limit of three fish per angler per day and an early season closure.

While they knew the earlier date, which arrives at midnight on Sunday, was coming, it doesn’t make it any easier for the local party boat and charter captains who rely on a strong summer flounder season in the fall. For example, “Bay Bee” Captain Bob Gowar said this week the season closure will have most party boats and inshore charter captains targeting other species, but many will be simply forced to shut down operations for the year.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “We usually fish right through September and into October then we switch over to rockfish in November. I don’t know what we’re going to fish for. Some of these guys are just going to shut it down.”

According to the federal Marina Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFFS), which tracks seasonal catch totals for various species, Maryland anglers reeled in 90,000 keeper flounder last year, far exceeding the total of 61,000 for the state. The 32-percent difference necessitated the changes this year including the season closure, but most anglers and captains agree the MRFSS numbers cannot be accurate and some simple math appears to bear that out.

For example, even if the flounder season was open every day of the year last year, anglers would have to catch 246 keepers per day to hit the reported 90,000 mark. For the roughly 150 days from April to September, anglers would have to catch 600 keepers per day to reach the MRFSS total. With most of the flounder effort concentrated around the roughly four months of summer, anglers across Maryland were catching 750 keepers per day last year if the 90,000 MRFSS numbers are accurate.

This year, even with the substantial increase in the minimum size for keepers, the MRFSS figures had the local summer flounder effort far exceeding its 61,000 quota by the end of June, with the main months of July and August still to go.

Captain Steve Whitelock of the “Happy Hooker” said this week the MRFSS numbers through June could not be accurate.

“It all comes back to the MRFSS numbers,” he said. “They can’t possibly be right. They estimated 73,000 flounder caught through June with the majority of the summer still to go and the quota in Maryland is 61,000.”

Whitelock said the numbers for June should have gone down, considering the increase in the minimum size for keepers.

“The numbers through June can’t possibly be right,” he said. “They didn’t factor in the increased minimum size limit for keepers. There just weren’t that many keepers caught with that higher size limit. Even if they were going with the old size limits, there is no way there were 73,000 keepers caught through June.”

Nonetheless, the summer flounder season is closing as planned on Sunday. While most agree with the conservation aspects of the new regulations on summer flounder this year, local captains and anglers are still seething about the flawed data used to justify them.

“A lot of the guys making the rules up have never been fishing,” said Gowar. “We have these state and federal guys sitting behind a desk somewhere crunching fictional numbers based on flawed science. They’re really out of touch with what’s really going on in the water and if they took a first hand look at it, they’d know those numbers couldn’t be correct.”

While the regulations might be admirable in their intent, there is a human side to the equation, according to Gowar.

“My mates won’t have a job,” he said. “This is about people. There are salaries involved.”

Captain Monty Hawkins of the “Morning Star” has long been an advocate for fisheries conservation, but agrees the MRFSS numbers for the flounder fishery in Maryland cannot be correct given the size and creel limits in place, along with stringent catch report rules for party boats that target flounder.

“It’s really irritating,” he said. “The days of ‘over the rail, into the pail’ from the 70s and 80s are long over. Now, with three keepers and an 18-inch minimum, I don’t think its possible to do any harm to the fishery.”

Hawkins pointed to the flawed numbers for the people fishing from the shore and docks and piers to illustrate just how far off the MRFSS figures might be.

“The numbers have the people on the shore catching almost 30,000 fish when all the party boats combined reported just over a thousand,” he said. “Now we know there are at least twice as many people fishing from the party boats on any given summer day than there are on the shore. If those numbers were true, we wouldn’t have any customers.”

One of the concerns about the MRFSS numbers is the high percentage of the total attributed to the effort from the shore. The party and charter boats are required to submit daily catch reports, but the numbers for the shore anglers are based on loose estimates that appear to be inflated significantly.

“The party boat-charter numbers are pretty tight. We submit daily catch logs,” Hawkins said. “MRFSS has the effort from the shore outdoing the party boat-charter effort by a ratio of 6-1 in 2009 and 12-1 last year. Why would folks pay us to take them flounder fishing when they’re catching the heck out of them from the shore? They’re not. The MRFSS numbers are wrong. Really wrong.”

Hawkins said the flawed formula needs to be revisited or even harsher rules could be implemented in the future. Just as last year’s inflated summer flounder numbers for Maryland dictated this year’s new regulations, the numbers for 2009 will determine a course of action for 2010.

“We have to get some communication going,” he said. “If the system isn’t corrected, the closures next year will be unbelievable.”

For now, local party boat and charter captains will be forced to either take an early vacation or target other species this fall.

“It hurts, but at least we were prepared for it this year,” said Whitelock. “It would have been worse if it was last second. We were prepared for it this year, but it really doesn’t make it any easier to take.”