Flounder Keeper Size Could Increase One Inch Under New NOAA Quota Plan

OCEAN CITY — Federal fisheries management officials are considering draconian reductions in the summer flounder quota in the mid-Atlantic region for 2017, but the resort area could be immune somewhat because of its proactive approach with size limits and creel limits in recent years.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries has been soliciting public comment on proposed acceptable catch limits for the 2017 and 2018 seasons after some jurisdictions went considerably over their prescribed limits in 2016. The proposals on the table could result in larger minimum keeper sizes, smaller daily creel limits and even season closures in some drastic cases for summer flounder, which is a staple of Ocean City’s recreational fishing industry.

NOAA Fisheries is proposing an Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) for summer flounder in the mid-Atlantic states of around 11 million pounds in 2017 and over 13 million pounds in 2018. If approved, the proposal would represent a reduction in allowable catch limit for the mid-Atlantic states of nearly 30 percent in 2017 relative and would mark the lowest ABC for summer flounder in the history of the management of the species.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) has been closely watching the proposed changes to the summer flounder quotas for 2017 and 2018 and has urged its members to reach out to NOAA to protest the proposed catch limits cuts.

“The RFA is opposed to the proposed reductions citing the fact that a full benchmark assessment has not been completed since 2013,” the RFA said in a statement this week. “An independent review of the current stock assessment found sufficient deficiencies and suggested that many improvements could be made to the modeling approach. Such improvements could eliminate or lessen the need for quota reductions.”

NOAA Fisheries often takes a broad brush approach to summer flounder management and include all mid-Atlantic states in quota calculations and proposed catch limits. However, individual states and even groups of states often manage the species independently, setting their own size limits and catch limits.

Captain Steve Whitelock of the Happy Hooker in Ocean City said Maryland, Delaware and Virginia have predicted the proposed quota reductions for summer flounder in recent years and have taken steps to lessen the blow.

“Maryland, Delaware and Virginia took steps a few years back in anticipation of an overage,” he said this week. “We figured it was not if, but when.”

In Maryland, the current regulations for summer flounder call for a 16-inch minimum keeper size and creel limit of four keepers per day with no season closure. Whitelock said since NOAA Fisheries announced the proposed quota changes, he has been in contact with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries officials about what the proposed changes could mean in Ocean City and beyond and believes there is a compromise on the table that could lessen the blow.

“It sounds like we’re going to go to a 17-inch keeper size from the current 16-inch, which hopefully satisfies NOAA,” he said. “Technically, we shouldn’t have to do anything in Maryland because we have been so conservative in recent years with our limits. We’ve been playing it very conservatively and almost voluntarily going to 17 inches should resolve the issue here and we shouldn’t have to do anything else. As long as there is no closure, we can live with 17 inches and it’s not the end of the world.”

Whitelock said Maryland and Virginia came in under their quotas in 2016, while Delaware was slightly over. Taken as a whole, the three-state region was under its quota. He said the northern states, including New Jersey and New York, for example, were well over the their quotas in 2016, which prompted the drastic cutbacks proposed by NOAA this month.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.