Rhode Island’s $28 million summer flounder industry will be in danger if
the state of Connecticut succeeds in its attempt to rescind the federal
quota system governing how it is landed, experts warn.
The state is asking a federal judge to rescind the quota system that
permitted just 2 percent of all summer flounder caught commercially in
1998 to be landed in Connecticut. By contrast, Rhode Island’s allocation
of the commercial stock was 15 percent.
Now, the U.S Secretary of Commerce sets an overall limit of how much
summer flounder all Atlantic coast states may catch. It then allocates
60 percent of the overall limit to commercial fishermen and 40 percent
to recreational fishermen.
Each state is then allocated a percentage of that overall commercial
quota. The percentage is based on the amount of summer flounder each
state landed commercially from 1980 to 1989.
For 1998, the overall commercial quota was 11,110,000 pounds. Of that,
Rhode Island commercial fishermen were permitted to land 1,742,583
pounds. Using that quota, the state Department of Environmental
Management then allocates its own quota for the spring, summer, and fall
fishing seasons. That way, the supply lasts all year and the market for
summer flounder – also know as “fluke” – remains stable, said DEM
spokesman Bob Ballou.
But without the state-by-state quota, he said, Rhode Island would be
unable to manage its summer flounder supply. Fishermen would catch as
much as possible when supplies are abundant, meaning the overall quota
would likely be consumed well before the end of the year. This would
upset markets, and hurt fishermen and wholesalers alike, experts
“It would lead to a free-for-all,” Ballou said. “That would be a
traumatic change, and one we view (as) potentially disastrous.”
Disastrous because other states would cut into Rhode Island’s share of
the summer flounder pie – especially since it is a migratory fish,
meaning southern states would be able to get at the crop before
fishermen in northern states.
Two weeks ago, DEM officials testified against Connecticut’s motion
for summary judgment, as did the state of New Jersey, the U.S.
Department of Justice, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The
case, being heard at the Second Circuit federal district court in
Hartford, Conn., could be decided in a matter of weeks.
The issue stems from the federal government’s attempts to restore the
summer flounder stock to its mid-1980s level. In 1986, for example, 9.5
million pounds of summer flounder were landed commercially in Rhode
Island, said David Borden, DEM’s assistant director for natural
resources development and protection.
In an effort to restore the fishery, the Atlantic States Marine
Fisheries Commission, an independent compact of 15 states on the
Atlantic coast, in concert with the Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management
Council, made up of representatives from New York to North Carolina,
developed quotas for summer flounder landings – which are eventually
approved by the U.S. secretary of commerce.
In 1994, for example, the overall commercial quota was 16 million
pounds. In 1995 it was reduced to 14.7 million. It has since remained
stable at 11.1 million, said Robert Beal, fishery management plan
coordinator for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, tautog, and blue
fish for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The Atlantic states commission governs in-shore fisheries – up to
three miles off shore; the mid-Atlantic management council governs off
shore fisheries. Both have a say in creating the quotas because the fish
is harvested in both waters.
“There were indications that the fishery was being over-fished,” Beal
explained. “The ultimate goal is to rebuild to maximum sustainable yield
But the state of Connecticut alleges that state-by-state quota system
is illegal and unfair. Throughout the 1980s, officials argue,
Connecticut required all summer flounder landed in state to be a minimum
of 14 inches – even though other states, particularly in the south, had
no such restrictions.
Rhode Island adopted the 14 inch minimum in 1984. All other states
have since adopted the minimum.
Given that Connecticut has been hurt by its own conservation efforts,
the quota system should be thrown out and revised, argued Connecticut
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Connecticut fishermen should be
permitted to land at least 3 percent of the commercial harvest, he said.
The current system – which conflicts with federal law prohibiting
discrimination – is killing the Connecticut industry, he added.
“We believe it is devastatingly unfair to our fishing industryour
fishermen haven’t been able to land any fluke since Oct. 1,” Blumenthal
said. “Connecticut has the problem it does because it has been so
conservation minded, and will continue to be.”
The state will appeal if the judge rules against the state’s motion,
Blumenthal said. The Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council has
already rejected a proposal to change the quota, he noted.
But Gary Powers, deputy chief of legal counsel for DEM, said part of
the reason Rhode Island’s commercial allocation has been so high,
compared to Connecticut, is that Connecticut fishermen have historically
chosen to land their summer flounder in Newport or Point Judith because
it was cheaper than returning to Connecticut.
“This lawsuit would completely obliterate the state-by-state
allocation,” Powers said. “It would remove the state’s control over the
(summer flounder) industry.”
But local fishermen are also displeased with the marine fishery
council’s efforts to rebuild the summer flounder fishery. They say the
commercial quota should be increased now that the fish are becoming more
“The biggest problem we see is, by all accounts, the fish is well into
the recovery stage,” said Ralph Boragine, director of the Rhode Island
The problem this creates, Boragine said, is that fishermen begin to
“upsize” their fish. Since large and jumbo fish are worth more per pound
than small fish, fishermen will begin throwing away the smaller fish
they catch. The more stringent the quotas, he indicated, the more fish
will die and be thrown back.
“There comes a point where it may be beneficial to relax things a
little bit,” he said.
But Richard T. Sisson, deputy chief of marine fisheries for the state
Department of Fish and Wildlife, disputed the notion that summer
flounder in all classes have come back well. Like a K-12 school system,
he said, adequate numbers of fish should be found in each of the 12 age
groups, he said. Most of the fish now are in the one to four age group,
he said. But he agreed that the quotas can also be harmful.
“Every time you impose a minimum size or trip limit you immediately
expose the rest of the stuff in your net to mortality, caused by
regulations,” Sisson said.
Though he could not confirm it, it is rumored that the next overall
quota set for 1999 will be 11.1 million once again, Beal said.