State Approves Extended Flounder Season

OCEAN CITY – In a somewhat rare example of state and federal fisheries management agencies cooperating with those on the front lines, state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials this week reversed an earlier informal decision on summer flounder regulations for 2010 and approved a season ending in late November rather than mid-September as proposed.

Recreational anglers are often at odds with state and federal management agencies when it comes to setting season lengths and quota levels for various species, and the situation was no different with the proposed 2010 regulations for summer flounder, a staple of the Ocean City recreational fishing industry. Last week, word leaked out DNR fisheries officials had decided on an 18.5-inch minimum keeper size with a proposed season from mid-April to mid-September.

The option was just one of many on the table for summer flounder for 2010, all of which had different combinations of minimum keeper sizes, creel limits and season lengths. The proposed mid-April to mid-September summer flounder season with the 18.5-inch minimum keeper size was perhaps the least palatable for Maryland’s coastal fishermen so reliant on a strong fall flounder season.

The preferred option for flounder fishermen on the Atlantic side was the 19-inch minimum keeper size 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 keeper length in exchange for a longer season into November.

During a packed Coastal Fisheries Advisory Committee meeting with DNR officials at the Ocean City Marlin Club in January, an overwhelming majority of the 100-plus in attendance voted for the 19-inch keeper size option with the November season closure, but concerns were raised even then that the resounding vote might have fallen on deaf ears. Chesapeake Bay anglers preferred the shorter keeper length and the shorter season because their flounder season is naturally shorter already.

Those concerns appeared to become a reality last week when a blitz email went out suggesting the DNR fisheries service had made an informal decision on the 2010 summer flounder regulations, opting for the April-to-September proposal. The news was met with much consternation from local anglers still smarting from the abrupt black sea bass closure last fall.

One day later, DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell said the decision was not final and called his staff back in to review the other options. Last Saturday, O’Connell came to Ocean City to meet with various charter and head boat captains and other stakeholders to discuss the proposed regulations. The exact content of those discussions are unknown, but on Tuesday, DNR officials announced they had formally approved the option calling for the 19-inch minimum keeper size and a season extending from April 17 to Nov. 22.

“After long and productive discussions with dedicated flounder anglers from the Atlantic side of Ocean City, the coastal bays of Ocean City and the Chesapeake Bay, this plan seems to do the most to encourage the enjoyment of our share of summer flounder while ensuring that Marylanders are doing their part to help restore the abundance of fish for the future,” O’Connell said this week.

While the health of the species’ population certainly remains at the forefront of the state’s management plan for summer flounder, O’Connell this week conceded there was an economic factor to consider when submitting and ultimately adopting regulations for 2010. The option chosen this week by DNR appears to meet those considerations.

“Of the management options that were available to Maryland, this plan will provide the longest fishing season, which is of significant interest to sports fishermen as it will increase recreational opportunities and, in turn, support tourism and local businesses,” O’Connell said this week.

The new regulations were met with cautious optimism this week among resort area charter boat captains weary of empty promises from state and federal fisheries management officials. Perhaps more important then the regulations themselves was the process by which the final decision was reached. Captain Monty Hawkins of the “Morning Star” said this week the decision reflects a willingness on the part of the DNR to listen to the anglers and captains.

“Maryland’s DNR Fisheries under Tom O’Connell really stepped up here,” he said. “It was an amazing display of a system at work and functioning.”

Hawkins said the proof is in the pudding and it remains to be seen if solid catch data is brought to bear in future fisheries management decisions.

“Every recreational fisherman will do what is required to make fishing better, to leave it better than we found it,” he said. “What we can no longer suffer is the continued snowballing of bad data smothering our fisheries with ill-found regulation.”

Meanwhile, Captain Steve Whitelock of the “Happy Hooker” in Ocean City said he was glad the DNR chose the option favored by local captains and anglers, but voiced concern about a possible closure later in the season if flawed catch data supports it.

“This is the option everybody around here wanted,” he said. “Chances are, they’ll go ahead and close it down in September anyway if their quota numbers say it’s warranted.”