By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
The days this summer for eating locally caught fluke on the Vineyard are coming to a close.
Fluke, also called summer flounder, are a flat fish. Their fillets are white and tasty, and most come from Vineyard Sound. Since the start of the summer, fluke have been the catch of the day.
On Tuesday, the state closed the commercial season for landing fluke, based on projected estimates that the state quota had been met.
Fluke may still be in the fish markets, but all the draggers in Menemsha will now shift their attention to other species or call it a season.
Another closure looms. The recreational season for fluke ends next Friday, August 15. For the first time in state history, recreational anglers will not be allowed to legally catch and land the fish. The closure comes as part of a regional effort to cut fishing effort on this valued resource, even though the fish seems plentiful in these waters during the summer.
Seafood lovers and anglers will need to shift their thinking to other species. Every fluke that is accidentally caught will have to be returned to the ocean.
Fluke as a migratory fish are overseen by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, based in Washington, D.C. They have a partnership with the Mid-Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission which regulates a number of different species that swim in Vineyard waters. Since the fish travels up and down the East Coast, management of the species is done in partnership with many states.
For close to 20 years, Vineyard commercial fishermen have argued the management of fluke is tilted more favorably for fishermen farther south along the coast than here.
Last year, the commercial season for fluke ended in the last week of July when it was believed that the annual quota of 654,285 pounds had been met. When the numbers finally were complete the total landings were 660,570, over the allotted quota.
While this year’s quota is 615,218 pounds, there is already word at the federal fisheries level that next year’s quota for the region will be raised.
According to reports, an official with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is moving to take steps to raise the quota, noting that the fishery is considered 70 per cent restored. This year’s quota of 15.76 million pounds along the East Coast could be raised by as much as 2 million pounds.
Two years ago, state environmental police found a group of Cape-based seafood processors underreporting their fluke landings. The case went through the judicial system and has yet to be completed.
Earlier this summer, environmental police Capt. Peter Hanlon said, they caught one fisherman entering Hyannis harbor with at least 500 pounds, 200 pounds more than he should have caught. The state observed the fisherman stop his boat outside of Hyannis harbor and offload the illegal 200 pounds into the water in some kind of crate with a buoy. The crate was then picked up by a small boat nearby. Both boats belong to the same fisherman, Captain Hanlon said.
The excess fish were seized on July 17, and the case is pending in Barnstable district court. Captain Hanlon said the state seized the small boat.
Word of these kind of actions may have put a scare into the waterfront. Since these events, Captain Hanlon said, seafood processors and fishermen are being much more accurate in their reporting.
At least two old wooden draggers have operated out of Menemsha this summer. Capt. Craig Coutinho of the fishing boat Viking and Capt. Dennis Jason, 22, operated the fishing boat Little Lady. Both have done well this summer.
“There is plenty of fluke out there, but I don’t understand why they closed it,” said Captain Coutinho, who lives in Vineyard Haven.
He said he is probably going to go fishing for lobster bait for the local boats. “The lobstermen are crying for bait,” he said.
Last year Mr. Coutinho went fishing for skate just to keep the lobstermen happy. But now, he said, “There aren’t many skate around this year. Water is warm and those skates leave.”
Captain Jason had a good summer fishing in Vineyard Sound. The family boat worked well and the days weren’t too long. On the good days, Captain Jason said he could get his 300-pound limit in four hours of fishing.
On Tuesday, the last day of the fishery, the captain left the dock at 5:30 and was done in four hours. While out on the water, Mr. Jason said, he saw a large number of boats out fishing.
“They were all over the Sound,” he said. “I took out my binoculars and saw them way down off Menemsha Bight all the way to Lucas Shoal. I saw boats up at Nashawena and off Gay Head, all around.”
The weather was favorable for the draggers this summer, in contrast to last summer’s fog.
“I got into some good days, when all I got was jumbos and selects,” he said. “Every sunrise is pretty memorable.”
When the summer season opened, Captain Jason said most of his fluke stayed on the Island and ended up at local fish markets and restaurants. Later in the season, Captain Jason said, he turned over his fish to Alec Gale of transport boat Jane Lee. His fish, along with the fish of others was transported daily to the mainland.
Dennis Jason, the captain’s father, is the Chilmark harbor master. Mr. Jason used to fish the Little Lady, often alone and at times with his father, the late Lenny Jason.
Mr. Jason described the closing of the fluke season as unfair to the small dragger. “It is not the end of the Earth, but it is close,” Mr. Jason said.
He said he can make a long list on what is wrong with fluke management in this state. He said he is most annoyed this summer by seeing fishing boats coming from Rhode Island, fishing in Massachusetts waters, and then unloading their boats in Massachusetts docks. Since the boats are landing in Massachusetts, their landings help consume the state’s limited quota faster.
The closing of the recreational fishery at the end of next week will be felt by even the youngest of anglers.
Joe Uranker, a recreational fisherman from Oak Bluffs, doesn’t like seeing a fishery closed in the middle of the summer. Mr. Uranker said of the regulators: “If they had any common sense they’d know that fishing is for kids. They would let the fishing continue through the summer. Fluke is one thing kids can catch.”
The state minimum size for fluke is 17.5 inches.
What is left for the recreational angler to fish for this summer? Striped bass, bluefish, black sea bass, scup and tautaug, just for starters.