State Plans Another Look At Summer Flounder Regs

OCEAN CITY – One day after less than agreeable summer flounder regulations for the waters in and around the resort area for 2010 were informally announced, state fisheries officials did an about face yesterday and reconsidered the proposal.

On Wednesday, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Coastal Bays Fisheries Program Manager Carrie Kennedy sent out a blitz email to area fishermen and stakeholders suggesting the DNR fisheries service had made an informal decision on the proposed summer flounder options for 2010.

In the email, Kennedy told local anglers the DNR had decided on an option that would include an 18.5-inch minimum keeper size with a proposed open season from April to September.

The option was just one of many on the table for summer flounder for 2010 including different keeper sizes, creel limits and season lengths and was perhaps the least palatable for coastal fishermen reliant on a strong fall flounder season. The preferred option for area anglers was a 19-inch minimum keeper size with a season extending into November.

During a packed Coastal Fisheries Advisory Committee meeting with DNR officials at the Ocean City Marlin Club in January, later called a “pre-scoping” meeting by state officials, the overwhelming majority of the 100-plus in attendance voted for the 19-inch minimum keeper size alternative with the season extending into November. With the important black sea bass fishery already closed in the fall, local anglers were willing to forego the shorter minimum keeper length in exchange for a longer season into November.

However, something happened between that meeting in Ocean City in January and the announcement this week because the DNR’s preferred option was the shorter keeper length and the shorter season, just April 24 to Sept. 24. Kennedy advised in her email on Wednesday, the press release attached was just a draft and a more formal announcement was forthcoming, perhaps as soon as next week, but the details of the release, including the proposed regulations for 2010 would not change. The email stated the proposed regulations for 2010 would be submitted as emergency regulations and would be effective by the start of the season.

However, as the word spread of the proposed 2010 flounder regulations on Wednesday, DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell was already reconsidering the proposal. Yesterday, O’Connell said he called his staff back in on Thursday morning to reconsider.

“There has been no firm decision made yet,” O’Connell said yesterday. “I called the staff back in this morning to reassess the options. I was not aware of the level of opposition to the proposed plan. There is some merit to going forward with the preference in the coastal community.”

Any proposal for summer flounder regulations would apply in all state waters including the Chesapeake, although the Atlantic fishery is clearly the most prolific. Chesapeake anglers favor the smaller minimum keeper size at the expense of a shorter season because the flounder season in the bay is not as long as in the coastal areas.

In her email on Wednesday, Kennedy said DNR officials heard “overwhelming support” for the increased size of 19 inches and an extended season into November, but public comment is “not the only consideration when making regulations.” She suggested extending the season into November could trigger a mid-season closure if the catch data supported it.

“The extended season provides an increased risk of an over-harvest of our target based on MRFSS estimates,” the email reads. “If the estimates come back at mid-season and project an overage, the fisheries service has a responsibility to close the fishery early. The extended season boosts the risk of this happening, especially given the likelihood of increased fishing pressure on flounder due to the black sea bass closure.”

Last fall, federal fisheries management groups abruptly closed the black sea bass fishery in Maryland and throughout the mid-Atlantic region citing data that suggested the quota had been surpassed. The sudden sea bass closure triggered a civil suit in federal court to reverse the decision, which included a handful of local head boat and charter boat captains as plaintiffs.

O’Connell said yesterday despite the rather ominous draft release with the smaller keeper size and the abbreviated season for summer flounder, the decision has not been made final and could change again before it is formalized. He said he plans to be in Ocean City on Saturday to meet with a handful of concerned coastal anglers before making an final decision.

“I’m going to be in Ocean City on Saturday to meet with a few individuals to see if there is a solution equitable to everybody,” he said. “We have not initiated any formal regulations. We were attempting to do that as soon as this week, but we’re taking a step back to make sure we’re taking everything into consideration.”