SEABROOK — Starting in May, there could be more locally caught flounder available. A recent decision by fishing regulators doubled the permitted catch limit for witch flounder, also known as grey sole. 

The move is considered a victory for the local inshore dayboat fleet and came at a New England Fishery Management Council meeting held in Portsmouth last week. When adjusted for management uncertainty, the decision will result in a 2017 annual catch limit of 839 metric tons, nearly twice the 2016 annual catch limit of 441 metric tons.

Seabrook’s Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative board member and Hampton commercial fisherman David Goethel argued at the meeting to raise the flounder catch limit even more, he said. Although the new limit is significantly lower than prior to what Goethel calls “draconian cuts” imposed by regulators after 2010, he said any increase is better than none. 

“It is good news,” Goethel said. “Anything that has the numbers going up instead of down is good news.”

A sample of how drastically catch limits were decreased can be seen in Goethel’s reductions, which went from 60,000 pounds 2010 to 400 pounds in 2016.

The unanimous vote by the council underscored the escalating distrust commercial groundfishermen reserve for the science used by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries to back up its assessment of the availability of groundfish stock in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. A Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Fisheries research figures were used to justify the reduction of catch limits for groundfish such as cod, haddock and flounder. The reductions nearly eradicated New Hampshire’s 400-year-old commercial fishing industry in recent years.

In December, however, NOAA Fisheries scientists were forced to concede that the model being used to develop the witch flounder stock assessment was irretrievably flawed after it failed the peer review phase of the process.

“The model used to conduct the assessment was rejected because it exhibited a problematic retrospective pattern, meaning it tended to underestimate fishing mortality and overestimate biomass,” the council said in the release announcing the action.

“What helped us is that this year there was a full-blown review of the grey sole by an independent group of outside scientists,” Goethel said. “They said not only was the old model used by NOAA (to establish its catch limits) wrong, but the new one proposed was also wrong.”

The finding forced the scientists to use an “empirical approach” to set the new specifications. 

Local commercial fishermen are pleased about the new grey sole limits, Goethel said, but there’s more hope on the horizon.

“What this indicates is that the numbers used by NOAA are not reflective of what’s really out there, and that’s been very, very frustrating, because we know there are more fish out there than they’re saying,” Goethal said. “The central question is what are the ramification of this; how is this going to affect the operational assessments of the models used for quota catch limits for other groundfish species?”  

The increase in the 2017 annual catch limit for grey sole may also provide financial relief for commercial fishermen who lease remaining catch limits from others who haven’t caught their limit, Goethel said.  

“With higher catch limits, it could reduce the cost of leasing fish, which is very expensive,” Goethel said.  

Staff Writer Sean Horgan contributed to this report. 

Angeljean Chiaramida can be reached at 978-961-3147, at achiaramida@newburyportnews.com, or follow her on Twitter @achiaramida1.

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