Summer Flounder

Life History

Summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus) are found in inshore and offshore waters from Nova Scotia, Canada to the east coast of Florida. In the U.S., they are most abundant in the Mid-Atlantic region from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Fear, North Carolina.

Summer flounder usually begin to spawn at age two or three, at lengths of about 10 inches. Spawning occurs in the fall while the fish are moving offshore. Spawning migration is linked to sexual maturity, with the oldest and largest fish migrating first. As in their seasonal migrations, spawning summer flounder in the northern portion of the geographic range spawn and move offshore (depths of 120 to 600 feet) earlier than those in the southern part of the range. Larvae migrate to inshore coastal and estuarine areas from October to May. The larvae, or fry, move to bottom waters upon reaching the coast and spend their first year in bays and other inshore areas. At the end of their first year, some juveniles join the adult offshore migration.

Adults spend most of their life on or near the sea bottom burrowing in the sandy substrate. Flounder lie in ambush and wait for their prey. They are quick and efficient predators with well-developed teeth allowing them to capture small fish, squid, sea worms, shrimp, and other crustaceans.

Commercial & Recreational Fisheries

Sumer Flounder

Summer flounder are one of the most sought after commercial and recreational fish along the Atlantic coast, with total landings at approximately 19.2 million pounds in 2020. Using baseline data from 1980 to 1989, the current plan allocates the summer flounder quota on a 60/40 percent basis to commercial and recreational fisheries, respectively.

Two major commercial trawl fisheries exist — a winter offshore and a summer inshore. Summer flounder are also taken by pound nets and gillnets in estuarine waters. Throughout the 1980s, commercial landings ranged from 17.9 to 37.7 million pounds. In 1993, the coastwide quota was implemented for the first time. Commercial landings (which are limited by the quota) have ranged from 5.9 million pounds to 18.17 million pounds since 1993. Commercial landings reached a time series low of 5.9 million pounds in 2017, but have since increased to 9.1 million pounds in 2020. Commercial discard losses in the otter trawl and scallop dredge fisheries are estimated from observer data, and an 80% commercial discard mortality rate is assumed.

Summer flounder are also highly prized in the recreational fishery. Anglers catch summer flounder from the shore, piers, and boats with hook and line. From 1981 through 2004, recreational landings varied widely from a high of 36.7 million pounds in 1983 to a low of 5.7 million pounds in 1989. Starting in 1993, harvest limits were implemented for the recreational fishery. Recreational harvest in 2020 was 10.06 million pounds, a significant increase from the prior year's harvest of 7.80 million pounds.

It is worth noting that the pandemic caused some significant challenges in data collection for both the commercial and recreational fisheries. NOAA Fisheries waived the requirement for vessels with Greater Atlantic fishing permits to carry a fishery observer from March until August. The 2020 commercial discard estimates will be affected by the missing observer data. In addition, the Access Point Angler Intercept Survey (APAIS) was suspended for several months in the spring and summer of 2020. APAIS is crucial for calculating estimates of recreational catch.

Stock Status

Sumer Flounder

The 2021 management track stock assessment indicates that summer flounder is not overfished nor experiencing overfishing. Spawning stock biomass (SSB) is estimated at 104 million pounds, approximately 86% of the SSB target of 122 million pounds. Fishing mortality is estimated to be 0.340, below the fishing mortality threshold of 0.422. Recruitment was estimated at 49 million fish at age 0, below the time series average of 53 million fish at age 0.

Data analyzed by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center for the assessment indicate an expanded age structure relative to the stock observed in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the data also indicate that recruitment has remained generally below average this past decade, and the reason is not known. Additionally, the last benchmark stock assessment found the spatial distribution of the resource is continuing to shift northward and eastward.

Atlantic Coastal Management

Sumer Flounder

Recreational angler with summer flounder. Photo credit: Mark Terceiro, NMFS NEFSC.

The Commission approved the first Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Summer Flounder in 1982, followed by a similar FMP approved by the MAFMC in 1988. Since then, both agencies have made significant revisions to the plan, increasing the protection of juvenile fish and ensuring the maintenance of an adequate spawning population. This increased protection has been implemented through larger minimum size limits across all sectors, increased mesh sizes, and decreased recreational possession limits. Cumulatively, these changes have contributed to conserving the resource while maintaining important commercial and recreational fisheries. This is not to say that challenges in managing this species do not still exist. Issues related to sector allocation and annual harvest levels persist.

Recreational management has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. Under the current process, the Board and Council annually determines whether to implement coastwide measures or enact conservation equivalency. Conservation equivalency allows recreational management measures in federal waters measures to be waived, and instead requires recreational anglers to abide by the measures of the state in which they land their catch. In 2018, the Board approved Addendum XXXII which established an annual specifications process for developing recreational management measures under the conservation equivalency process. The Board approve regional measures in early spring each year, based on technical committee analysis of stock status, resource availability, and harvest estimates. Public input on specifications is gathered by states through their individual public comment processes. The specifications process provides the Board more flexibility in adjusting measures, if necessary, to constrain harvest to the annual coastwide recreational harvest limit (RHL). Further, the process enables the Board to consider a host of factors, including: regional equity; regulatory stability; species abundance and distribution; and late-breaking recreational harvest estimates.

In 2019, the Board and the Council jointly approved the Summer Flounder Commercial Issues Amendment. The Amendment revises the management program's goals and objectives specific to summer flounder and implements new state-specific commercial allocations. The revised management program's goals and objectives focus on ensuring biological sustainability of the resource, supporting and enhancing development of effective management measures, and optimizing social and economic benefits from the resource. These revisions were made to reflect current priorities in sustainably managing the resource.

In 2021, the Board and Council jointly approved changes to the commercial and recreational allocations of summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass. These changes are intended to better reflect the current understanding of the historic proportions of catch and landings from the commercial and recreational sectors. The Board and Council developed this amendment in response to recent changes in how recreational catch is estimated by the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), which resulted in a revised time series of recreational data going back to the 1980s. This created a mismatch between the data that were used to set the allocations and the data currently used in management for setting catch limits. Additional information about this amendment is available at https://www.mafmc.org/actions/sfsbsb-allocationamendment.

The Board and Council has set new specifications for 2022 with a commercial quota of 15.53 million pounds and an RHL of 10.36 million pounds. These landing limits represents a 24% increase in the commercial quota and a 25% increase in the RHL from 2021 levels. In response to the increased RHL, the Board will work with states to review and approve new recreational measures in early 2022 for the 2022 fishing season. No changes were made to the commercial measures.

Upcoming Action

In March 2022, the Interstate Fisheries Management Program Policy Board (Policy Board) and the Council approved for public comment the Recreational Harvest Control Rule Draft Addenda to the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass FMP and Bluefish FMP. The Draft Addenda consider changes to the process used by the Commission and the Council to set recreational management measures (bag, size, and season limits) for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, and bluefish. The Council is considering an identical set of options through a framework action. These potential changes are intended to provide greater stability and predictability in recreational management measures from year to year and allow for more explicit consideration of stock status when setting the measures. The Draft Addenda proposes five possible approaches for setting recreational measures. Key differences between the options include the information considered when setting measures and the circumstances under which measures would change. These differences have implications for how often measures would change and the magnitude of those changes. Taking final action on these addenda will not implement any specific bag, size, or season limits but will modify the specification process for setting specific measures. The Draft Addenda are available at http://www.asmfc.org/files/PublicInput/HCR_DraftAddenda_PublicComment_March2022.pdf or via the Commission’s public input webpage. Public hearings were conducted through March and April and the deadline for public comment was April 22. The Policy Board and the Council are expected to take final action on the Recreational Harvest Control Rule Draft Addenda and Framework in June of 2022.

 

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