Flounder Dilemma

Everett Johnson
Something bad is occurring in our flounder populations. TPWD has been documenting a 20-year decline in relative abundance of this popular species. And this is not just a Texas problem. Resource managers in all Gulf and Atlantic states are seeing it in their fisheries as well.

Conservation efforts in the form of increased minimum length and reduced bag and possession limits that have worked with other recreationally important species just haven't worked on southern flounder. Bay shrimping has been historically blamed for depleting stocks but might have been overrated. Shrimping efforts have declined 90% over the past decade with license buyback, increased cost of operation and market conditions yet the decline persists.

Lance Robinson, Upper Coast Regional Director of Coastal Fisheries, describes the situation. "We are about out of wiggle room. The stocks have declined such that a freeze or red tide of any magnitude could force a moratorium on all use."

So what should be done and how will it affect Joe Angler?

Recreational users point fingers at the commercial sector. "The commercials are stabbing too many," is heard often. We also have rod and reel anglers miffed at recreational brethren who fish with pitch forks. Trace that one farther and you'll find a rift among rec giggers. Waders clamor for lighted, air-driven boats to be outlawed.

I attended a Key Recreational Stakeholders meeting recently during which TPWD presented information that will be put before the public soon in a series of opinion scoping sessions. Science suggests there is more in the equation than simple over-utilization. Spawning and recruitment rates are greatly influenced by water temperature, flounder doing best in cooler periods. The warming trend of the last twenty years is gaining acceptance among researchers as the root of much of the evil.

Flounder need three years to achieve sexual maturity and full impact of conservation efforts do not appear until six years following implementation. Hatchery production and stocking, while perhaps a viable option for the future, cannot provide the boost managers seek today.

Harvest data identifies a peak of landings coinciding closely with annual spawning migrations. October, November and December bring the greatest success for fishermen of every class with 55% of the documented harvest occurring during these months. November alone contributes almost 28%.

Management tools include further reduction of bag limits along with seasonal and area closures. Seasonal and area closures (passes) would promote escapement to gulf spawning grounds, reducing bag limits works year round. Seasonal closures would be easiest to enforce, area closures might be a nightmare. Elimination of commercial trade is also on the table. None of these will please all users.

The missing link may be failure to fully understand what percentage of the harvest presently goes un-counted. Creel surveys describe what rods and reels take, but occur well after nighttime floundermen have returned to the dock. Some postulate that "backdoor trade" to restaurants by commercial and even some rec giggers may be larger than we'd care to know. One fact is undeniable, between the fishermen and Mother Nature our flounder are slipping away.

Somewhere in the middle of all this TPWD is going to have to make some tough decisions. From my viewpoint; if indeed too many are being stabbed and hooked then the limits and/or areas and seasons should be adjusted. As for commercial utilization; I see the sun setting. The charge to resource managers is to maximize socio-economic benefit that can be derived from the resource while providing viable fisheries for the future. This would certainly seem to favor rec users.

I'm going to put a twist on an old proverb. "You can't have your flounder and eat 'em too." It's time to make some changes. Catch and release; take a few to eat fresh and pray the managers get it figured out before our flounder are gone.