The Winter Flounder Web
From Press of
Atlantic City, Ocean County Edition August 8, 2005
Flounder study may open doors for dredging
By BERNARD VAUGHAN Staff Writer, (609) 978-2012
LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - In the coming months, researchers at the Rutgers University Marine Field Station and the National Marine Fisheries Service will begin a study of winter flounder spawning habits that could affect seasonal dredging permits.
The researchers will tag the species in the Navesink estuary near Sandy Hook, where the flounder is prevalent, with new acoustic tracking technology that will allow them to know where the fish are within a meter.
By more clearly defining the fish's spawning habits, the study could refine information used in processing permits for winter dredging, which is mostly forbidden by the state in order to protect the spawning habitat of winter flounder.
The current dredging rules are a thorn in the side of some marina owners who cringe at the thought of having to dredge during the summer or fall, when boaters are still active, because of a fish they say is nearly, if not totally, nonexistent in southern New Jersey.
"I have never seen any winter flounder down here," said Bill Kocis Jr., part owner of Cape May Marine in Cape May since 1985.
Still, Cape May Marine had to schedule its dredging for the fall this year because of regulations.
That's because, even though Kocis and others rarely if ever see winter flounder, the New England Fishery Management Council, which overseas preservation of the species, has determined that the estuaries of New Jersey are essential fish habitat for them. And the National Marine Fisheries Service, which advises the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection on their dredging regulations, agrees with them, according to Stanley Gorski of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"(Essential fish habitat) is not necessarily based on the existing presence of fish. It might be an indication of where the fish were at one time," said Gorski, field offices supervisor for the Habitat Conservation Division of the Northeast Region of NMFS.
In other words, the region's coastal waters have all the ingredients ripe for winter flounder, regardless of whether they are here. And that means southern New Jersey has to abide by the same rules as in the northern part of the state and further north, where the species is prevalent.
Gorski said dredging is forbidden from January through May.
Winter flounder always have had a presence in the region but their population has declined for several possible reasons, said Tom Grothues, assistant research professor at Rutgers and a leading researcher on the study.
"The population center has probably moved northward with the warmer climate trend," he said.
A better understanding of the atypical spawning habits of psuedopleuronectes americanus, or winter flounder, might give the state more flexibility in granting winter dredging permits, rather than enforcing blanket regulations, Grothues said.
"Most fish in the middle Atlantic states actually leave the estuary in winter and have semi-buoyant eggs, but winter flounder are different because they come into estuaries in winter and lay sticky eggs on the sea bottom," Grothues said. "That's what makes them vulnerable to winter dredging. But we don't know much about that - we don't know where they're laid in the estuary, and we don't know if it's salinity, depth preference or temperature that makes the choice for them, or if it's random."
Researchers will attach an acoustic transmitter to the fins of about 70 fish for the study, Grothues said. A series of underwater microphones, or hydrophones, will track the fish's travels. But unlike similar studies of bluefish and striped bass, the hydrophones will be outfitted with a global positioning system, or GPS, antenna. This tracking technology, Grothues said, will let researchers locate fish to within a meter.
Preparation for the study, which is funded by the DEP, begins in the next month or two, Grothues said, and the study is expected to take two years.
The study could lead to a more precise definition of essential fish habitat for winter flounder, he said - for example, the study could find that winter flounder spawn near a certain kind of mud, sand or eel grass, and that the specific mud or eelgrass isn't found or is sparse in specific estuaries of southern New Jersey. Marinas could, potentially, petition the state and the Army Corps of Engineers for winter dredging permits, arguing that those elements are not in their environment and therefore winter dredging would not endanger winter flounder spawning, Grothues said.
The study also could find that the status quo is best, he said.
"(Essential fish habitat) is built on parameters," said Rick Weber, owner of South Jersey Marina in Cape May. "If we learn that the parameters that EFH has been built on are incorrect, that would be very important to every shore-side community."
Weber, and Kocis from Cape May Marine, said boat owners want to keep their boats afloat longer today because of the resurgence of the striped bass population, further narrowing the window when marinas can dredge, which can take weeks and even months.
"My slip-holders want to stay in as long as possible, sometimes through November," Weber said. "If it takes two or three months to dredge, you have such a small window to do it. When do I start throwing my customers out to dredge?"
JERSEY ISSUES WINTER FLOUNDER CONSUMPTION ADVISORIES