In boon for local fleet, flounder limits doubled

File photoFishing regulators have approved new specifications for witch flounder, also known as grey sole, that will nearly double the annual catch limit for the species in 2017. 

In a victory for the local inshore dayboat fleet, fishing regulators on Wednesday approved new specifications for witch flounder that will nearly double the annual catch limit for the species in 2017.

Meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the New England Fishery Management Council approved an acceptable biological catch of 878 metric tons of witch flounder, also known as grey sole, for 2017. When adjusted for management uncertainty, the move will result in a 2017 annual catch limit of 839 metric tons — nearly twice the 2016 annual catch limit of 441 metric tons.

“I think the council was compelled by the industry’s own observation that we have a pretty strong witch flounder stock,” said Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.

The council action on witch flounder should provide a significant boost to the local dayboat fleet and the fortunes of the fishermen that are immutably tied to the stock.

“It’s huge,” Giacalone said. “Everybody who is left fishes for it. The inshore dayboat fleet is almost entirely dependent on this stock.”

The spike in the 2017 annual catch limit should provide a double-edged benefit, according to Giacalone.

“It has the two-fold benefit of increasing the quota, so the guys have more fish available to them, and it also makes leasing additional fish less costly because there are more fish,” he said. 

The unanimous vote by the council also underscored the escalating distrust commercial groundfishermen reserve for the science NOAA Fisheries uses to fuel its stock assessments.

In December, NOAA Fisheries scientists were forced to concede that the model being used to develop the witch flounder stock assessment was irretrievably flawed after it failed the peer review phase of the process.

“The model used to conduct the assessment was rejected because it exhibited a problematic retrospective pattern, meaning it tended to underestimate fishing mortality and overestimate biomass,” the council said in the release announcing the action.

That forced the scientists to use an “empirical approach” to set the new specifications. 

“It was pretty obvious from the get-go that this model would fail any independent review,” Giacalone said. “I think that was recognized today by all and we hope that it opens the eyes of Jon Hare, the new science and research director of the Northeast Fishery Science Center, to the need for continuing to work with industry on developing better and more accurate science.” 

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

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