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Essential Habitats for Winter Flounder Identified
Gulf of Maine Times
June 25, 2010
by Rachel Feeney, Northeast Consortium Fisheries Specialist

A team of fishermen and scientists recently resolved an important mystery about essential fish habitat for winter flounder.

U.S. federal law mandates that the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) identify and protect essential fish habitat (EFH) for all species that are under the Council’s jurisdiction. That includes knowing the areas where fish spawn and feed, and where juveniles grow up. Up until last year, experts knew little about spawning EFH for winter founder in the Gulf of Maine – a species that managers are increasingly concerned about restoring.

bouchard and fairchild  
Capt. Carl Bouchard and Dr. Elizabeth Fairchild don’t let a damp day dampen spirits. Image courtesy of Rachel Feeney.  

Not that long ago, winter flounder was fished from the Gulf of Maine south to North Carolina, but the population has been migrating northward, and fishermen have not been seeing spawning flounder in estuaries like they used to. The winter flounder now seem to prefer spawning in deeper water.

Dr. Elizabeth Fairchild of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) said, “the marine ecosystem seems to be shifting with the warming of ocean temperatures, but the data on winter flounder habitat have been pretty spotty.”

With funding from the Northeast Consortium, Fairchild is now leading a collaborative effort to get some answers about winter flounder spawning habitat preferences in the western Gulf of Maine.

bouchard and fairchild  
The haul is quickly sorted aboard F/V Stormy Weather to release bycatch immediately. Image courtesy of Rachel Feeney.  

“We couldn’t have been nearly as successful without the fishermen,” said Fairchild. New Hampshire-based Captains Carl Bouchard, Charles “Puggy” Felch Sr., and David Goethel have “fantastic” knowledge of fish locations and bottom features, and decades of experience with the ups and downs of doing research at sea.

The team, which also included Dr. Michael Armstrong of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Dr. Hunt Howell and research technician Laughlin Siceloff of UNH, hypothesized that Gulf of Maine winter flounder are spawning in coastal and offshore waters rather than in estuaries. This assumption is based on what fishermen and scientists have seen anecdotally, but it runs counter to what has been documented south of Cape Cod, where winter flounder spawn in estuaries.

  bouchard and fairchild
  The haul is quickly sorted aboard F/V Stormy Weather to release bycatch immediately. Image courtesy of Rachel Feeney.

To find answers, they put acoustic tags on 40 pre-spawning adult winter flounder in the spring of 2009 and tracked their movements over the spawning season. Acoustic receivers were set out in a grid pattern in the area off the New Hampshire coast, where the fish were released, and along the mouth of estuaries from the Piscataqua River in Maine, south to the Annisquam River in Massachusetts.

Then, the “listening” began and continued over the course of the spring spawning period and into summer, along with fish sampling, to be able to connect flounder movements with what they were doing: spawning, feeding, or resting.

Of the 40 fish tagged, only six entered the estuaries that had receivers. The rest dispersed from the study area fairly quickly and in all directions, but the majority headed towards the coast. Those few that headed into the estuaries did so only towards the end of the spawning season.

Researchers made several tows in New Hampshire’s Hampton Harbor where one of the fish was discovered. Although they did not catch that one fish, all the other adult winter flounder they found were feasting on the rich harbor biomass, having finished spawning.

bouchard and fairchild  
The haul is quickly sorted aboard F/V Stormy Weather to release bycatch immediately.
Image courtesy of Rachel Feeney.

Fairchild says she is excited about the data, which validate the hunch shared by her and the fishermen that winter flounder use a variety of habitats to spawn depending on the region, but also that the estuaries are an important feeding area for adults and a nursery ground for juveniles.

In addition, she documented that adult winter flounder are nocturnal travelers and come off the bottom when moving long distances. Sometimes they ascended from the sea floor as much as 45 meters (147 feet). This project suggests for the first time that winter flounder movements show they take advantage of tides and currents to help move significant distances around the Gulf of Maine.

“Now, I’ve been fishing a long time,” said Felch, “but until last summer, I never really knew where the blackbacks (winter flounder) went to spawn.” Felch purchased and rigged all the gear used in the project and teamed with Goethel and Bouchard to help deploy the receivers and to catch and track the winter flounder. “This project was one of the best I have ever been involved with,” Felch said.

Current Daily Limits for Winter Flounder
Commercial Recreational
Gulf of Maine 250 pounds 8 fish
Georges Bank 250 pounds 8 fish
South of Cape Cod* 50 pounds 2 fish


 bouchard and fairchild
 The haul is quickly sorted aboard F/V Stormy Weather to release bycatch immediately.
Image courtesy of Rachel Feeney.

Not three months after the field work finished last summer, federal and state regulations became much stricter about harvesting winter flounder to help the population recover and protect spawning stocks. Now, multi-species commercial groundfishermen working in federal waters south of Cape Cod are prohibited from landing any winter flounder. In the Gulf of Maine where the stock is a bit stronger, landing winter flounder is allowed, but it is very limited.

“Knowing the specific locations in which spawning fish are found, and identifying what it is about those areas that makes them ‘essential’ to the fish, help us develop more targeted fishery management measures for those areas,” explained NEFMC Fishery Analyst Michelle Bachman, who is working on the EFH Omnibus Amendment. “In addition, focused EFH designations benefit the National Marine Fisheries Service as they consider the potential impacts of non-fishing uses of the marine environment on fish habitat during an EFH consultation.”

Rachel Feeney is the Communications and Information Coordinator for the Northeast Consortium, a collaborative research funding program founded in 1999 and based at the University of New Hampshire.

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