New England Fisheries

Floundering About: A “compromise” for witch flounder

Witch flounder is also known as grey sole. Image via NEFSC/NOAA.

NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office released Framework Adjustment 55 for public comment this week, which proposes a suite of changes to the Northeast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, including establishing 2016-2018 annual catch limits for its 20 managed groundfish species. A species at the center of the discussion at the Council level and within Framework 55 is witch flounder.

New England’s witch flounder stock is currently “overfished with overfishing occurring.” The stock is on a seven year recovery plan set to end in 2017 but remains at only 22 percent of its target biomass – with significant scientific uncertainty about whether the assessment is sufficiently conservative. At a January council meeting, Jamie Cournane, a scientist with the New England Fishery Management Council, concluded that the stock cannot be rebuilt if we remain on the current trajectory – strict catch limits are needed to save the stock.

A ubiquitous fish

The issue at play here, however, is that witch flounder – a species located almost everywhere in the Gulf of Maine and caught by almost all gear types – is often caught as bycatch in the groundfish fishery. A low catch limit for the species therefore has the potential to largely impact fishermen’s ability to catch other groundfish species. More important, a fishery closure due to an overrun of quota for witch flounder would have a massive impact across New England since the species is managed as a single stock area.

The ultimate decision by the Council, which led to the proposed rule in Framework 55, was seen as a compromise – a precautionary limit for the species. The Council’s Science and Statistical Committee, incorporating the most recently available biological and economic data, determined that the allowable biological catch (ABC) should not exceed 500 metric tons; the Council responded with an ABC recommendation of 460 metric tons for the upcoming fishing season.

Though this can be interpreted as a management decision that at least partially recognizes the risks of setting quota too high, caution should be taken when accepting limits that close to the science recommendation’s ceiling, as the existing models tend to overestimate biomass and underestimate fishing mortality.

Catch limits set close to the science recommendation pose higher risks that could have profound economic, social, and ecological consequences in the short term but even more significantly in the long term, an all too unfortunate New England Council pattern.

An increase in unreported bycatch is likely

The case for witch flounder is further complicated by the fact that it often falls below the radar in terms of at-sea monitoring. And since Framework 55 also slashed monitoring coverage to an almost meaningless 14 percent, the chances of unreported bycatch have now skyrocketed.

Inaccurate reporting for the species can only create further problems for the groundfish fishery and other fisheries that are unable to avoid witch flounder bycatch. If the true catch is unknown, no management strategy can effectively rebuild this essential stock or even halt its further decline.

There is a common saying that “When you realize you are digging yourself into a hole, the first response should be to stop digging.” While some on the Council seem to be pinning their hopes on the fact that the witch flounder stock will be fully reassessed this fall, another year of overfishing and unrecorded discards could dig the hole even deeper.

NOAA Fisheries is collecting comments on Framework Adjustment 55 until April 5, 2016. The full proposed rule can be found here.


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