ELLSWORTH, Maine — Citing new data that suggest winter flounder is no longer being overfished, federal regulators indicated this week that they are raising the limit on Gulf of Maine winter flounder that can be caught.
The limit on landings is being increased from 510,000 pounds to 1.1 million pounds for this fishing season, which is scheduled to end on April 30, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Monday.
NOAA officials said three years of additional catch data and a more sophisticated model were used last year to estimate the amount of winter flounder in the Gulf of Maine. The new assessment conducted in June 2011 indicates that fishing geared toward winter flounder was “well below” the sustainable limit.
“Increased catch levels will provide important economic benefits at a time when there is significant concern about the status of Gulf of Maine cod stock,” Sam Rauch, acting assistant administrator for the NOAA’s Fisheries Service, said in a prepared statement.
Despite the increased catch limit, winter flounder remains a relatively small fishery among other species targeted by Maine fishermen, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics.
In 1951, Maine fishermen caught nearly 2.3 million pounds of winter flounder but landings plummeted to less than 50,000 pounds in 1963. They soared again to nearly 2 million pounds in 1982, when Maine boats earned a total of less than $700,000 for the fish, and then plummeted again. Other commercially fished species experienced similar dropoffs in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1999, fewer than 10,000 pounds of winter flounder were caught and brought ashore in Maine. From 2003 through 2006, annual landings of winter flounder in Maine averaged under 71,000 pounds and less than $93,000 in total value for the entire Maine fishing fleet.
By contrast, 94.7 million pounds of lobster with a total, fleetwide value of more than $313 million were caught in Maine in 2010. Preliminary estimates suggest that the total volume of lobster brought ashore in Maine in 2011 may be more than 100 million pounds, which has never happened in any prior year.