By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor
WARWICK, R.I. — Few fish species are tasty, lucrative or charismatic enough to merit their own all-day symposium. But fluke is one that deserves such an honor. More than a hundred people demonstrated the importance of fluke by gathering recently in the Crowne Plaza ballroom to discuss future management of this cherished swimmer.
Co-sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Coastal Institute, the Rhode Island Commercial Fluke Symposium charged participants with a special task: evaluate recent innovations in fluke management and envision characteristics of an optimal fluke management program for the future.
Fluke, also called summer flounder, is a migratory near-shore species with special significance for both the commercial and recreational fisheries in Rhode Island. It is the most valuable finfish in the state, bringing in $6 million in dockside revenue in 2010, and also one of the most popular, with more than 500 boats going after fluke annually.
And the species is well poised to become even more significant. With many other species in the region on strict rebuilding plans, the fluke resource is considered fully rebuilt and healthy.
The bulk of the Jan. 27 discussion focused on the Rhode Island Fluke Sector Pilot Program, a three-year program that began in 2009. That program allocated 15.7 percent of the total commercial fluke catch to the Fluke Conservation Cooperative, commonly referred to as the “fluke sector.” This percentage was based on the 2004-08 landings of the 17 boats belonging to the cooperative. Members were allowed to catch their allocated portion of the fish at a time of their choice. In contrast, fishermen not belonging to the cooperative were regulated through daily poundage limits.
“We’re at a critical juncture,” DEM director Janet Coit said, referring to the recent expiration of the pilot program. “The fluke resource is healthy. It’s important. It’s of great value and interest. Now we have an opportunity. Do we continue this program? Or do we do something else?”
In the commercial fishing industry, feelings on both sides of the issue run strong. Despite the best efforts of facilitators to maintain a collaborative atmosphere, tension was often just below the surface.
“This is about ideology and social engineering,” commercial fisherman Brian Loftes said. “It has nothing to do with the resource.”
The fluke resource is above target levels, and abundance in Rhode Island has been steadily climbing since the early 1990s.
“Stay away from management programs that privatize the fluke resource based on a set of past years of an individual’s history,” fisherman James Haitz said. “This leads to a windfall for some and a marginalization of other stakeholders.”
Those who participated in the fluke sector said their desire wasn’t to deprive others of opportunity, but to enhance the flexibility of their own fishing operations and gain an ability to track the market. Sector member Aaron Gewirtz called the experience “a unique business opportunity.”
“We spend a lot of time talking about the downside of (sector) management,” he said. “We’re denying all of us a new path in an industry where, a lot of times, the deck is stacked against us.”
Around the room, side conversations speculated on whether DEM would continue the fluke sector program for a small group, expand it to apply to all commercial fluke fishermen or abolish it altogether. DEM officials said no formal options have yet been identified.
If and when DEM begins a regulatory process to decide the future of sector management in the fluke fishery, the contentions buried beneath the surface at the Jan. 27 symposium are expected to come out in full force. At that point, lessons learned in the collaborative and congenial setting of the symposium may prove invaluable.