From 40% to zero: Collapse of winter flounder was years in the making – The Providence Journal


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PROVIDENCE — In the 1980s, before he started fishing offshore for lobster, North Kingstown native Lanny Dellinger dove for quahogs in Narragansett Bay. He always set out a bait line from his boat knowing that all the sandworms and shrimp-like copepods churned up by his digging would attract hungry winter flounder.In those same years, Rick Bellavance, a Narragansett charter boat captain, would do the same thing while raking for clams in the shallow waters off Warwick.“At the end of the day, you could put five or 10 in a bucket for dinner,” he says. “It was almost guaranteed.” On early spring mornings, Rich Hittinger, first vice president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, would motor out of Jamestown with his kids and look out for where the quahoggers were active. They’d sprinkle rabbit pellets in the water from their boat, drop a few lines, and, while everyone was drinking hot chocolate to stay warm, wait for the flounder to bite. “The fish would actually hook themselves,” he laughs. Those were the golden days of winter flounder in Rhode Island, just before the fishery went through a second collapse that nearly finished it off.Scientists say the failure of the fish’s population in the Bay to even come close to a recovery in the last three decades or so is due to climate change. Warming waters have thrown off the balance for winter flounder, restricting when they spawn, exposing them to greater predation and stunting growth rates of their young. “At least 40% of our income was winter flounder,” says retired commercial fisherman Jerry Carvalho. “It went from that to zero.”Commercial landings of winter flounder in Rhode Island were first documented in 1887 when fishermen brought in 341,000 pounds, according to a study by Mark Gibson, former deputy chief of the Department of Environmental Management’s marine fisheries division. By the early 1930s, landings were nearly 10 times higher following the introduction of draggers that were able to trawl the Bay bottom with huge nets.By the 1960s, catches totaled 4 million pounds, then rose to 6 million in the 1970s before peaking at 9.2 million pounds in 1981 with a total value of $3.4 million. It was among the largest fisheries in Rhode Island.When the final downturn hit, it came fast. By the mid-1990s, landings had plummeted 80%. In 2020, the total was a meager 92,000 pounds.Scientists saw the collapse occurring almost in real time. They warned that if drastic steps weren’t taken, the fishery wouldn’t recover. A series of warmer-than-normal winters was interfering with the reproduction of the species. And under those conditions, fish were being taken at unsustainable levels.Winter flounder were easy to get because of their predictability. It was widely known that the fish migrated at the same times every year and followed the same paths up and down the Bay. A DEM fisheries biologist at the time compared it to “shooting ducks in a barrel.”State fisheries biologist Chris Parkins helps pull the fishing net aboard the at the stern of the John H. Chafee, a Department of Environmental Management research vessel, in February.Kris Craig/The Providence JournalAt the urging of the DEM, regulators in Rhode Island enacted a moratorium on all fishing of winter flounder in the Bay in 1991, but they lifted it five years later and replaced it with a strict quota and permit system. By 2011, the ban was back in place for the Bay, as well as for the Harbor of Refuge, Point Judith Pond and Potters Pond, in Narragansett and South Kingstown. It has been in effect ever since. Regulation at the regional level has followed a similar stuttering pattern. The National Marine Fisheries Service shut down the fishery in federal waters off Southern New England in 2009, but lifted the ban four years later. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the species in state waters, set a daily limit for commercial fishermen of 50 pounds a day — just enough that boats could legally take some winter flounder as bycatch while going after other fish. The recreational limit is two fish a day.Despite the long-standing restrictions, the spawning stock biomass in the region is a paltry 18% of the target estimated to maintain sustainable population levels. For all intents and purposes, the fish is commercially extinct in the region. In hindsight, it’s easy to see what happened in Rhode Island. Exploitation rates ranged as high as 40% to 50% a year of the total estimated winter flounder population in the state — more than double the rate to maintain a maximum sustainable yield over time, according to Gibson. In 85 of the 93 years from 1919 to 2011, the fish’s mortality rate exceeded the overfishing limit.Up until the big collapse 35 years ago, the winter flounder fishery experienced peaks and valleys, but the population always eventually bounced back — as long as temperatures were right for spawning and the growth of young fish. But climate change has had a profound effect on the marine ecosystem in Southern New England. Fisheries regulations founded upon the assumption that certain environmental conditions would remain stable have failed to keep up.“The recovery threshold is based upon a climate state that no longer exists,” says Joe Langan, a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island who is studying the fish.A winter flounder caught in a net south of Whale Rock is held up to the light by marine researcher Joe Langan to determine its sex in 2015.Mary Murphy/The Providence Journal, fileAfter the fishery industrialized in the 1930s, landings plummeted by nearly two-thirds in just four years, prompting concerns of a collapse. Charles Fish, founder of the research institution that would become the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, was enlisted by the state to help develop conservation measures. In 1939, spawning grounds in the upper Bay were closed to draggers, and the fishery recovered.In 1952, Fish sent a letter to Gov. Dennis Roberts raising concerns about a bill to reopen the area. He summarized the results of his prior study, saying the message was clear.“It was evident, therefore, that the problem of flounder conservation in this state rests entirely with ourselves…,” he wrote.That was true then, but not anymore, not in the face of climate change. Bringing winter flounder back to healthier numbers in Narragansett Bay now — if it’s not too late — would require changes on a much larger scale.Published
9: 06 am UTC Apr. 15, 2021
11: 36 am UTC Apr. 15, 2021
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