If you love eating fresh-caught fluke you should rush to the fish market and buy it today. Today is the last day commercial fishermen are permitted to land and sell fluke. After today the only options are to catch it yourself or befriend a recreational angler.
Fluke, also called summer flounder, is a Vineyard success story.
Throughout this summer as many as 20 commercial draggers came into Menemsha Harbor most mornings to unload their 300-pound daily limit. This daily limit is not a lot of fish when compared to other mesh net fisheries. In an age when fishing boats use nets as big as football fields and fish for days at sea and catch thousands of pounds in one set, this fishery is small. But it is also a sustainable fishery and a success story that needs to be spread across the New England seaside community.
Up until a few years ago only a few seafood lovers ate fluke on the Vineyard. Almost 100 per cent of the fluke landed here was shipped to the mainland. For reasons that escape us, fluke was better loved elsewhere.
Fluke is a flounder, a bottom dwelling fish with eyes on one side of its head. When baked or steamed, the fillets break with the touch of a fork. With just a spread of heated butter it has a stellar flavor.
In the last few years there has been a major shift in the appreciation of fluke on the Vineyard. One reason could be an initiative brought forward by local fishermen and local markets — changing the name to Vineyard sole. Today a sizeable number of restaurants serve the beautiful cream-colored fillets in a variety of ways.
Late Tuesday morning, under a bright summer day, the fishing boats came into Menemsha to unload their catch. The fish were sorted by size and put inside a refrigerator unit next to the Menemsha Fish House. Menemsha is not a sleepy harbor in the last days of the fluke fishery.
Alec Gale, who runs the wholesale seafood distributor, said he and his crew had a good season and he acknowledged that more of the fish landed are being consumed here than in the past. Though the bigger market remains on the mainland, more and more Vineyard seafood lovers are calling fluke the “catch of their day.”
Vineyard commercial fishermen are responsible for the rise in the abundance of this fish, mainly for actions they took more than 23 years ago. Twenty Vineyard fishermen petitioned the state in 1990 to end night fishing for fluke. Much of the impetus stemmed around a night meeting in the old office of the Steamship Authority in Vineyard Haven. The fishermen received help from state Rep. Eric Turkington and Sen. Henri Rauschenbach. It was a spirited meeting, and this columnist remembers that the night brought forward a level of hope.
It took a year, but the state came up with the night ban, and a daily minimum of 500 pounds. Banning night fishing and setting a daily limit essentially chased the large out-of-state draggers out of Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds. It was no longer financially feasible for big fuel-consuming boats from afar to operate in these waters.
Fisheries management is more often unfair than fair. It is not always clear who is being served. Subsequent to the Massachusetts rule changes, regulators governing the Atlantic coastal region gave Massachusetts an unfair low proportion of the regional fluke quota. There was more than one summer when the Massachusetts fishermen were nearly shut out from the fishery. But with the regulations in place, the fluke fishery rebounded.
It takes fluke only two years to reach sexual maturity, so the fish were able to respond quickly. By 1994 the fishermen saw a positive impact of the conservation measures.
Capt. David Dutra, of Providence and the fishing boat Richard and Arnold, said he had a good summer and never missed a day. â¨“It is sad, the season has ended,” he said. “But I am tired as hell.”
Captain Dutra will be back next summer. “God willing!” he said.