Monday, May 22, 2006

Over the Weekend: Fewer Flounder Because of the Experiment from Hell, and other stories

Flatfish ... There was an interesting presentation at last month’s Long Island Sound Citizens Summit conference, in Bridgeport, about how global warming and warmer water temperatures seem to be resulting in a shift in the species that inhabit the Sound, from cold water animals to warm water animals. Flatfish were a prime example: Winter flounder are now rare but fluke, or summer flounder, are more common.

During the Q&A, I asked why that was important – why should I care if winter flounder were gone especially if summer flounder have replaced them? The answer was that there was no particular intrinsic reason to care but that lots of people like to fish for winter flounder, and so a valuable resource – especially a recreational resource – is being lost (lots of people fish for fluke too, but I didn’t pursue that argument).

Today’s Connecticut Post has a first-rate look at the winter flounder issue, written by Ed Crowder. He says over-fishing doesn’t seem to be a big contributor to the problem, mainly because fishing limits have been in effect for several years and the number of fish have remained low. Possible causes include warmer temperatures, predation, sewage and pesticides. Here’s what he says about water temperatures:

The average winter water temperature, tracked by the DEP in Waterford, has trended upward — from 34.4 degrees in 1977 to a high of 42.2 in 2002. Winter flounder go into estuaries to spawn during the winter, then emerge for a few months in the coastal shallows before heading out to cooler offshore waters.

If the water warms up earlier in the year, while the young flounder are still near the shore, predators such as striped bass may head in to feed on them, Simpson said.

"Part of life strategy of spawning in the dead of winter is to avoid predation," he said. "With subtly warmer water temperatures, those predators are able to come out earlier."

In 1989, I spent a good part of a day with Penny Howell and her crew from the Connecticut DEP as they used beach seines to look for young winter flounder. In more than half a dozen seines they averaged less than one juvenile flounder; a year earlier they had averaged nine per seine (I wrote about this in some detail in my book).

How rare have winter flounder become? Crowder says the fishing statistics tell the story:

Recreational landings fell from 1.3 million in 1984 to 4,484 in 2005.

At the Citizens Summit, one of the speakers referred to global warming as the experiment from hell. Consider that to be one of the results.

LI Development ... Friends of the Bay and other organizations held a protest march yesterday to express their displeasure with an Avalon housing development proposal for Oyster Bay. I couldn’t find any coverage of it in Newsday but the paper did find room for a story that discussed how wonderful it is to have new development on Long Island.

Don't Drive Over the Plover ... Block Island is ringed by amazing beaches, including plenty that are wild and unmanicured. They don’t attract many piping plovers though. In fact these tiny shorebirds, which are federally threatened, haven’t nested successfully on Block Island since 2000, which seems odd to me. The Block Island Times reports that a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist named Corrie Heinz has found two pair there this year:

For four years now, Heinz has been walking the beaches every spring, on the lookout for the small, sandy colored, black-ringed piping plovers, which are listed as a threatened species. She reports that there are two pairs on the island this spring. As well as the Crescent Beach pair, two birds are criss-crossing the upper sand at Charlestown Beach, looking for the perfect place to nest.

In the past 10 years, according to Heinz, plover nests have been discovered on three island beaches: the North Light Refuge, Charlestown and Crescent. In 1997, she writes, a nest was discovered at the refuge. Although the birds incubated the eggs for more than 30 days, the eggs failed to hatch. "Most likely," she says, "the birds were scared off the nest too often, leaving the eggs to be cooked in the sun."

Nests on Mansion Beach in 2003 and between Town and Scotch in 2004 also failed to produce any chicks. The last successful nest on Block Island was in 2000.

Charlestown Beach isn’t very busy and maybe the plovers will have a chance there. Crescent Beach is another story. Thousands of people go there in summer. All I can think to say is, “Good luck.”

Bargain Beach ... When I was a kid we went to an idyllic beach in New Jersey, on the Metedeconk River, an estuary of Barnegat Bay. The waves were gentle, which was good for kids, you could catch blue crabs, there was a picnic grove in the pine trees at the edge of the beach, a snack bar with a juke box that had lots of Beatles songs, and, for when you needed water, a pump painted fire-engine red. All for only $1 per car.

It made me think about whether there were similar inflation-adjusted bargains today. This website figured out for me that $1 in 1964 is worth about $6.04. A beach for $6.04? Not quite, but for a still-reasonable $15 you can get into Compo Beach, in Westport, on a weekday. The Boston Globe did a roundup of best New England beaches yesterday, and Compo made it as the best bargain.


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