By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
The ninth annual fluke derby run by the Veterans of Foreign War Post in Oak Bluffs 9261 may be Saturday, July 12 and Sunday, July 13, just over a week away, but anglers are already out there harvesting the fish. July is fluke season for most anglers.
While there has been plenty of attention in the last month on striped bass and bluefish swimming around the Island, the fluke (summer flounder) fishery is alive and well in Menemsha and in parts east and west.
Stanley Larsen of Menemsha Fish Market said he is buying the fish from the local draggers and he is most impressed that shoppers this summer who have stepped into his store are buying the fish as the catch of the day.
“It is great seeing people buy [fluke]. It is locally caught fish, easy to prepare,” Mr. Larsen said.
In past years, only a few of the local seafood lovers touched fluke. There was no way to explain why locals were shy. Fluke, especially big fluke, are as good a delicacy as any other flatfish.
Still, nearly all the fluke landed on the Vineyard is still shipped to cities on the mainland.
Fluke is one of the few species of fish in Vineyard waters that is recovering well from years of overfishing. The restoration of the fishery is more a political story than one about science.
Fluke is managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. It takes a lot of fisheries managers working together to restore the fishery. The animal is highly migratory and easily targeted along the coast.
It doesn’t require a lot of science to know why the numbers declined. Overfishing depleted the fish.
Now fisheries regulators are under the gun to restore the fishery to levels few have ever seen in Vineyard waters. A key element in the restoration is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which requires that even a fish species in good shape need to be restored to a sustainable level.
The good news ahead is that years from now there will be even more fluke swimming in Vineyard Sound, far more than there are now. Mr. Larsen said he can remember years ago when there were between 50 and 60 commercial fishing boats hunting for fluke in Vineyard Sound and surrounding waters.
The bad news will come later this summer when, for the second year, the recreational fishing season for fluke will close.
The recreational season for fluke runs from June 10 to August 15. Fishermen are limited to a minimum size of 17.5 inches and a daily bag limit of five fish.
On August 16, it will be challenging for any father to tell his child he can’t keep his 18-inch fluke.
Fisheries managers and Islanders alike hope that when the fluke fishery recovers, regulations in these waters will be relaxed.
Commercial fishermen already have been under strict regulations. The draggers are limited to a trip limit of 300 pounds and the fish should be no smaller than 14 inches. Hand-line fishermen are limited to a minimum of 200 pounds a day. The commercial fishery is managed by a quota and that quota keeps seeming to get smaller.
Commercial fishermen in Massachusetts this year have a 616,218 pound quota and it is going quickly. According to the state Division of Marine Fisheries Web site earlier this week, 254,682 already pounds have been landed, which is 41 per cent of the quota.
Capt. Craig Coutinho of the Menemsha fishing boat Viking has fished for fluke for years. He described this summer as a “so-so” season when it came to his landings.
“It is the same old thing,” the captain said. “There are a few out there.”
Captain Coutinho said he starts the morning at around 5 a.m. and doesn’t get back until one in the afternoon. He said he is making a day’s pay but the bigger issue is how much time it takes to catch and land his 300-pound daily limit, because time is fuel.
“The fuel is killing me,” he said. “We go out and get 300 pounds of fluke and we are paying $5 a gallon for fuel. You aren’t making much money. If you put in a long day, you’ve gone through 25 gallons of fuel. And they are saying the price is going up.”
The Viking is one of the last two original small wooden draggers working out of Menemsha. This summer the captain is more concerned about fuel than on the availability of the fish.
“Fuel is the difficulty. It is impacting everybody. It is impacting the truck drivers, the farmers,” Captain Countinho said.
He said his net is coming up with a wide variety of sizes, which reflects well on the state of the fishery.
“For a long time we used to get mediums,” he said. “Now we are seeing selects, mediums and jumbos,” the captain said.
As for the recreational fishermen, they are seeing plenty of action. Bigger fish are showing up.
The waters off the Brickyard, like last year, are again a popular spot to catch big fish this month. Anglers are working the Middle Ground and Lucas Shoal, which are the usual places.
Capt. John Potter, of the fishing party boat Skipper out of Oak Bluffs, said this week he saw big fluke on the western end of Squash Meadow.
Squash Meadow a long narrow underwater bar of sand in Nantucket Sound. For those looking for the popular shoal, it can be found on most nautical maps a few miles northeast of the Oak Bluffs harbor entrance.
Last year 200 fishermen participated in the VFW’s annual July fluke tournament. This year’s event is being held on Saturday, July 12. Lines go into the water 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning. Lines come out of the water before the weigh-in closes on Sunday at 6 p.m.
Peter Herrmann, organizer of the contest, said the post is anticipating more than 200 fishermen participating this year. He ordered 240 hats. “This year, everyone that registers gets a hat,” Mr. Herrmann said.
Registration is $20 for adults. The event is free for kids up to the age of 12. Children 13 to 16 years of age and seniors cost $10. There is a team competition at an additional charge of $40.
“Team competition is a big thing. We started doing it two years ago and there is now a lot more interest,” Mr. Herrmann said.
The weigh-in station, at the VFW headquarters at 14 Towanticut avenue in Oak Bluffs, will be open from 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
The emphasis in the contest is on the kids. The prizes include bicycles. Mr. Herrmann, a retired educator, has plenty to do to make the event happen. This year he is getting a lot of help from his good friend, Jeff Wray, an assistant chairman for the event.
Another key part of the event is the cookout that follows the closing of the weigh-in station on Sunday.
Stanley Larsen has three orange lobsters in a display tank at Menemsha Fish Market. The three are about a pound and a quarter in size. No one has yet made any plans to eat the lobsters. They may be more valuable alive.
Nothing draws a crowd faster than an oddly colored lobster.
Mr. Larsen said blue lobsters are rare, but orange are even more rare. The animals came from the waters off northern Massachusetts.