Winter flounder, once abundant in Vineyard waters, is on the verge of collapse. And now a group of Islanders, with help from the University of New Hampshire, have received a federal grant to try and raise the fish at a local hatchery and release them into Lagoon and Menemsha Ponds.
The $308,000 National Sea Grant from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration funds the research and raising of fish on the Vineyard and East Hampton, L.I. The two-year project begins here Nov. 1 with a one-year study of the two ponds. The second year will involve raising and releasing tagged winter flounder into the ponds.
Elizabeth A. Fairchild, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, is heading the project. She has studied winter flounder for over eight years and applied for the grant earlier this summer.
The local partner in the project is the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. “Winter flounder is very important in the waters around Martha’s Vineyard. And the latest stock assessment says they are doing very poorly,” said Warren Doty, chairman of the association and a Chilmark selectman. “We first brought Ms. Fairchild down here three years ago to speak at the Chilmark Library about the work she has been doing. We have worked on the idea of raising winter flounder in these waters for three years now. We wanted to do this project on our own, but it cost too much. Finally there is federal money to do it.”
The value of the research and eventually stocking local ponds with winter flounder is another boost for the local aquaculture movement, already humming with a successful offshore blue mussel program well underway and a growing oyster farming industry, among other things.
Everett H. Poole, who ran a fish market in Menemsha for 50 years, recalled the important role of winter flounder, once landed by the thousands and exported from the Island.
Winter flounder is also sometimes called blackback flounder and lemon sole.
Small draggers would leave from Menemsha, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown and catch the fish off Oak Bluffs, at Hedge Fence in Nantucket Sound, in Vineyard Sound and other places around the Island.
Mr. Doty recalled when he ran a wholesale fish buying business in the early 1980s seeing the fish landed in February and March at Memorial Wharf in Edgartown, and at the Oak Bluffs dock and in Vineyard Haven. He said small draggers would come home with over 1,000 pounds of fish. When local markets were flooded, the flounder would be shipped to the mainland.
In the 1990s, the numbers began to drop. An analysis of the stocks shows that winter flounder are still plentiful in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, but Southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic are a different story.
“We pretty much have a stock that has collapsed,” said Mike Armstrong, a fisheries biologist with the State Division of Marine Fisheries. In recent years Massachusetts has begun to place severe restrictions on the commercial and recreational fishery for winter flounder. Ms. Fairchild said that this spring the federal government imposed a zero possession limit for fishing boats in federal waters.
But now flounder stocks may be aided by the introduction of baby fish raised in hatcheries. Winter flounder spawn in inshore waters. As juveniles they live in estuaries and coastal ponds. As adults they swim in the open ocean, usually returning to the place they were born to spawn.
“We are going to stock Menemsha Pond with 50,000 juvenile winter flounder. And if only half of those flounders live to be adults, that would be 25,000 mature adults returning,” Mr. Doty said. The same goes for Lagoon Pond.
A key period in the project involves the first year of study in the two ponds. “We are going to spend a year studying the ponds where the fish will be released,” Ms. Fairchild said. “There is already great water quality data out there for both ponds. But there is very little information about what is in the pond. We want to know how much mackerel, crabs, lobsters and sand eels are in those ponds.” She continued:
“We will do what the shellfish growers have done. We want to know what the winter flounder will face when it comes to predators. We want to know if there is enough food available.”
The project is also receiving funding from the Science Consortium for Ocean Replenishment.
Another key element of the work will be to determine the optimal age and size to release the fish. “They need to be large enough to be tagged and large enough to avoid high predation,”
The winter flounder project leaders are hoping to use the Wampanoag Tribe shellfish hatchery in Aquinnah. Situated on the shore of Menemsha Pond and currently unused, the hatchery would be an ideal place to run the project. Final approval must come from the tribal council.
Tribe staff are already involved in the project. Next month six Vineyarders will travel to the University of New Hampshire Coastal Marine Laboratory in Newcastle for two days of training in connection with the project. They are Mr. Doty, Bret Stearns and Andrew Jacobs from the tribe, and John Armstrong, Isaiah Scheffer and Shelley Edmundson from Chilmark.
Mr. Doty said more people will become involved as the project gets under way, but the core group is charged with administering and getting the work started.
“We are going to do some serious research in the biology of the pond and that could be valuable for many future projects. We need to get out on the ponds twice a month. Each time we will be taking water samples and seining,” Mr. Doty said. He said a one-metre otter trawl will be used to drag up specimens. “We want to see how many flounders and shrimp are in the pond. We’ll even take core samples from the bottom,” he said, adding:
“We’ve learned from Professor Fairchild’s beliefs, you shouldn’t just put something new into the environment before you assess the environment first.”
In the end, Mr. Doty said the project is one more sign of a new era in the fishing industry.
“All fishermen know that you can’t be independent anymore. You can’t go off and do your own thing. You have to be part of an environmental plan, or a sustainable plan, or you have no future,” he said.