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Uncivil War Breaks Out Over Fluke as Habitat Shifts North

One of the most popular eating fish on the U.S. east coast is moving north as waters warm due to climate change
mama osprey bringing fluke to nest
mama osprey bringing fluke to nest


Humans aren't the only ones that like the summer flounder.
Credit: John Picklesimer via Flickr

The summer flounder – one of the most sought-after catches on the U.S. East Coast – is stirring up a climate change battle as it glides through the sand and grasses at the bottom of a warming North Atlantic.

Also known as "fluke," the flat, toothy fish is remarkable for its ability to change color to adapt to its surroundings, rendering it almost invisible to predators and prey.

Some scientists say in recent years the species has begun adapting in another way. As the Atlantic Ocean has warmed, they say, the fish have headed north.

The center of summer flounder population, recorded as far south as Virginia around 1970, is now off the New Jersey coast. Its migration has set the stage for battle between northern and southern East Coast states on how to share the business of harvesting this tasty, lean fish – valued at $30 million per year commercially and untold millions more for the recreational fishing industry.

Remarkable comeback
Battle lines have been drawn over a fish that has staged a remarkable comeback from a population crash linked to overfishing in the late 1980s. But fluke has returned to a dramatically changed environment in the sea and on land. 

On one side are southern states, most importantly, North Carolina, with a commercial fishing fleet pummeled in recent years by competition from cheap foreign seafood imports. North Carolina today gets the biggest slice of the East Coast fluke fishery, based on its 1980s history as the leader in summer flounder landings. It is eager to hold onto its summer flounder quota, even if that now means the commercial fleet motors to New Jersey and back to find fish. 

On the other side are northern states, particularly New York, where recreational sports fishing has become an important business and economic engine chafing under what anglers and their advocates view as outdated – and inadequate – quotas.

'Fluke fairness'
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has pledged to bring "fluke fairness" to Long Island by introducing legislation to do away with the long-standing state-by-state quotas that he says short-change New York's fishermen. But North Carolina is not likely to surrender its quota quietly. 

"This is an opportunistic reason for using climate change or whatever the heck reason they want to use," said Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association. The northern states would like to get some of our quota." He maintains it would be an unfair way to repay Tar Heel State commercial fishers for sacrifices they've made that have helped rebuild the summer flounder stock so that it's robust enough to head into cooler waters.

The regional authorities that manage East Coast fishing under U.S. law made tweaks in their summer flounder plans this year in an attempt to address concerns about inequity and allow more flexibility for recreational anglers. But unhappiness persists, and work is underway on a longer-term solution.

Prototype for climate impacts
This spring, a team of scientists and fishery managers launched a project aimed at better understanding the summer flounder,Paralichthys dentatus. The goal is to create a prototype for fisheries managers coping with similar conflicts that are bound to arise as climate change impacts become more evident. 

The project involves researchers from four mid-Atlantic universities and is funded by a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant.

NOAA researchers, in a study published last month, said reduced fishing pressure – not a warmer Atlantic – is the reason more fluke are found further north. But study coauthor Jon Hare, of NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Narragansett, R.I., says that's not the case for all fish: Climate change has caused a northward shift for two other northeastern fish grouped in the same management plan as the fluke: the popular black sea bass, and the small scup or porgy, which is often caught by fishers targeting other catch.

"Much of our management assumes that conditions in the future will be the same as they have been in the past," said Hare. "Now we have observational data to show the conditions have been changing through time, so assumptions about the future are being brought into question."

Populations moving northward
The North Atlantic has been warming at 0.41º Fahrenheit (0.23° Celsius) per decade from 1982 to 2006, or close to twice the global average for marine ecosystems, according to one widely cited study. And the bottom trawl surveys conducted since the 1960s show that the center of the summer flounder population has moved northward at roughly 19 miles per decade for the past 40 years.

Changes in local temperatures can explain recent geographical shifts of more than 300 different fish species: They've migrated toward the north or south poles, and even east or west into deeper waters, depending on their original locations. "We do think that climate is playing an important role for a wide range of species," said Malin Pinsky, a Rutgers University ecologist who led that research and who now is heading the joint researcher/manager study on summer flounder's changes.

While scientists try to sort how much of fluke's northward shift is climate-change related and how much is not, pressure is building on authorities charged with divvying up the fishery among East Coast states.

"Fish have very strong thermal preferences, and they also have tails. They don't wait to be convinced," said Richard Robins, chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils tasked with meeting demand while preventing overfishing in U.S. waters. 

A Top 10 fish
The council, which by law recommends species management plans that are then approved and enforced by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service, has had to cope with northward shifts by several species, including the Atlantic mackerel, he said.

But perhaps no fish is causing as much consternation as the summer flounder. It is among the top 10 most popular fish caught in U.S. waters by recreational anglers, who relish pursuit of "flatties," or "doormats," as the largest fluke are sometimes called. Summer flounder are known for grabbing bait aggressively with well-developed teeth. "They offer a particular challenge to the angler bold enough to use light tackle," notes one website on northeastern fishing.

Fluke were so heavily overfished in the 1980s that commercial landings plummeted from 38 million pounds to a low of 9 million pounds by 1990. The haul by recreational fishers dropped from around 30 million pounds to about 3 million pounds.

Only after the contentious and much-litigated process of putting quotas, size and catch limits into place in the early 1990s did the species recover. By 2010, NOAA declared the summer flounder stock rebuilt. Total annual harvest recently has been about 20 million pounds of fluke per year, split 60-40 percent between commercial and recreational fishers.

'A success story'
With flaky, white meat, easily broiled, poached, or fried, summer flounder is considered by many to be a sustainable seafood choice, since it is caught wild by U.S. fishers in the carefully managed program. And it is popular for East Coast diners looking for fresh catch, a stand-out local choice at a time when 91 percent of seafood on U.S. plates is imported, mostly from farming operations in Asia.

"In many ways, it has been a success story," said Pinsky.

That poses a problem. Fish are rebounding in different waters. But commercial quotas are based on where fish were brought into port during the 1980s. 

As a result nearly 28 percent of the quota is allocated to North Carolina, followed by Virginia, with 21 percent, and New Jersey, with 16 percent. New York's share is just under 8 percent.

The fact that fewer summer flounder are found off just off North Carolina's coast hasn't been a major impediment for that state's commercial boats, which have been willing to travel long distances for catch. "North Carolina boats have always been very, very mobile," says Schill, who knows stories of North Carolina boats in the 1950s going as far as Alabama to find shrimp. "They do what they have to do to put bread on the table."

So North Carolina vessels travel north, if necessary, to catch summer flounder, then motor home so the fish are "landed" there, counting against North Carolina's high quota. 

Strict limits no longer fit
But for recreational anglers, who typically cast bait close to their home state ports, summer flounder's northward migration is starkly evident. Under the rules in place last year, New York anglers face strict limits on the size and number of fish they can bring in, and yet their fluke haul was 13 percent over target. North Carolina sports fishers were 67 percent below their target, with far looser rules in place. New Jersey led all states in sports fishing for fluke, blasting through its target with more than double the catch of neighboring New York.

At the end of last summer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue federal authorities to overturn the summer flounder management rules, which he said "stifle the New York fishing industry." His office estimated that New York's fishing industry is losing about $6 million per year in revenue because its allocation falls below that of neighboring states.

"All of this is set against the backdrop of demographic change in the Northeast, and a huge boom in recreational fishing," said Chris Kennedy, environmental economics professor at Virginia's George Mason University. The change that is happening in the water is only one part of the equation that the team is tackling, he said. They are trying to understand the changes occurring on land as well, in both commercial and recreational fishing communities. 

Recovering from Sandy, relying on fluke
For both New York and New Jersey's fishing industries, still recovering from 2012 superstorm Sandy damage, it has been painful to forego the readily available fluke just offshore. "Due to economic losses sustained due to Hurricane Sandy, many marinas and tackle stores in the northeast were relying on the summer flounder fishery to finance rebuilding and repair costs," noted the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council's fishery performance report released last summer.

New York's recreational summer flounder restrictions were eased somewhat this season, and are now in line with those in both New Jersey and Connecticut. But the Mid-Atlantic Council, and its its partner agency, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing with three miles of shore, are reopening their summer flounder management plans, with the hope of arriving at a longer-term solution.

"We're going to revisit what is the appropriate management response to the emerging idea that the fluke biomass have shifted north and east," said council member Jeff Kaelin.

Kaelin, who heads up government affairs for Lund's Fisheries, a commercial operation based in Cape May, N.J., said that the unintended consequences of the current system are readily apparent to his company's operations. 

Although most of the vessels Lund's owns or works with call Cape May home port, some have North Carolina permits. They may catch summer flounder right off the Jersey shore, but need to head south "and burn hundreds of gallons of fuel to land 100 boxes of fluke against their [North Carolina] quota," said Kaelin. "That's with fuel at $3 to $4 a gallon, and very contrary to the issues of climate change and carbon footprint."

Hurt for North Carolina fish processors
Kaelin added that with the help of electronic monitoring and reporting, it might be possible to address the problem with greater flexibility – allowing commercial boats to bring fish into port in New Jersey, but tally their catch against North Carolina's quota. That idea will not sit well, however, with the North Carolina coastal fish processing industry, which is relying on fresh catch. "As an industry organization, we want the biggest bang for the buck for our state," says Schill.

He maintains the problem is that authorities have not figured out how to manage a species that has rebuilt as strongly as the summer flounder. Schill says he hopes the fishing community across the Middle Atlantic can reach agreement on fluke without regulatory intervention.

Few relish the prospect of reallocation of the fluke quota, even if the fish has swum far from its historic habitat. "Whenever you change the allocation, it's never good for everyone," Kennedy said. "There are always winners and losers."

Still heading north
Even more daunting is the prospect of what will happen in the years ahead, when projections call for the North Atlantic to warm even more dramatically. Summer flounder's northward journey may not yet be at an end.

It's not surprising that the system set up long ago to manage the fishery, involving two separate regional stakeholder councils and seven states with differing interests, has difficulty addressing the fluke's geographic shift, Kennedy said. "It illustrates well the difficulties facing local authorities and stakeholder groups, representing a spectrum of priorities, when attempting to respond to large-scale environmental change."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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