The Story of Martha's Vineyard's Relationship with Right-Eyed Flat Fish, Winter Flounder

It Takes a Village

by Heidi Sistare

It Takes a Village

Elizabeth Cecil

Betsy Larsen works quickly: stuffing lobster rolls, answering a customer’s question and moving the container of lemons just a little closer to the hand reaching for them. It’s early May in Menemsha, too soon for crowds, but there are enough customers inside Larsen’s Fish Market to hint at the summer hustle. Inside the fish case, one of the metal pans hosts big, shining white filets. These are American winter flounder: right-eyed flatfish, culinarily versatile, also called lemon sole or blackbacks, found inshore during winter and subject to strict fishing regulations.
“The winter flounder used to be on everyone’s plate,” said Andrew Jacobs, environmental technician for the Wampanoag Tribe. Because Southern New England fishermen are limited to a 50-pound catch in state waters (the fish can reach up to five pounds) and prohibited from catching this species in federal waters, the winter flounder isn’t the food staple it once was.
A few doors down from Larsen’s, John Armstrong sits in his fishing shack on a tall wooden stool. This building has been here since the 1930s, and John is surrounded
by history: pictures, paintings, floor boards worn down by the footsteps from so many boots. John started fishing commercially in 1979, and he remembers trawling for winter flounder with his brother out of Chatham. “They were part of a traditional fishery,” John recalled. “It would be really nice to get that population back to what it once was.” In 2011 scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reported that the Southern New England winter flounder stock had reached 16 percent of the target population level.
The decline in the winter flounder population was probably caused by a myriad of factors: overfishing, changes in water temperature and the degradation of inshore bays and estuaries—fallout from the complex relationship between people and the sea. In November of 2010 a group of scientists, fishermen, and tribal employees set a new relationship in motion as they embarked on a project to raise winter flounder in the Wampanoag Tribal hatchery on Menemsha Pond.
The raising and release of winter flounder on Martha’s Vineyard was a collaboration of scientists from the University of New Hampshire (UNH), employees of the Wampanoag Natural Resource Department, members of the Martha’s Vineyard/ Dukes County Fishermen’s Association and others. The project was primarily funded by a National Sea grant through the NOAA. “So many different organizations and people from different backgrounds came together to tackle a common issue,” said Elizabeth Fairchild, assistant research professor at the University of New Hampshire and lead scientist for the project. “It was all hands on deck as there was so much community enthusiasm and support for the project.”
In August of 2012, two years after the project began, people clustered around John’s skiff on Nashaquitsa (or Quitsa) pond. Some waded out in shorts, and others, riding in kayaks, rested their paddles across the front of their vessels as they peered towards the edge of the skiff. It was a sunny day and light winds sent ripples skipping across the pond. From the skiff, people used nets to scoop juvenile winter flounder out of their temporary fish tank and let them dribble into the pond. Juvenile winter flounder are about three inches long; their shape earns them the nickname “potato chips.” As they entered their new environment, they floated to the bottom, finding safety among the grasses.
It took a village to raise the flounder, and Elizabeth said that Warren Doty and Bret Stearn’s “connections and leadership were invaluable to the project.” Warren was president of the Martha’s Vineyard/ Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, and Bret is director of the Natural Resource Department for the Tribe. Together they helped to unify all of the different groups involved.
Warren approached John about the project in early summer at the 2010 firemen’s picnic in Chilmark. John started working with the group of tribal employees, volunteers and shellfish constables to sample for predators and food sources in the two possible release sites: Lagoon Pond and Menemsha Pond. There was a whole year of sampling and getting the hatchery up and running before the group was ready for fish. It was March of 2012 when fishermen located adult winter flounder ready to spawn south of Nomans Land Island. The fish were delivered to the hatchery, which had to be retrofitted to accommodate finfish.
When the adult fish arrived in the hatchery, they were put into “honeymoon tanks” where everyone hoped they would spawn with abandon. All they needed to do was “turn the lights low and put on some Barry White,” John said, and those fish spawned like, well, rabbits of the sea. When the females were “spawned out,” or out of eggs, the hatchery technicians would carefully release all of the fish back into the pond.
Post-spawning the challenge was taking these clusters of eggs and turning them into fish. Turns out that the secret to this mystery of life and science is good food. A third of the hatchery was used to raise food for the growing fish. Serel Garvin, a 20-year-old lifelong Aquinnah resident and assistant at the hatchery, was the winter flounder’s chef during their stay.
This project was about the fish, but like the complex social and economic issues around fishing regulation, it was also about the people. John said Serel is at the top of his list of reasons why he loved working in the hatchery. Serel grew up fishing on Menemsha pond. He said there were months during high school where he was fishing every evening and every morning; sometimes he even slept in the truck so he could be that much closer to the water in the morning. He brought the same dedication to his work with the winter flounder. When something went wrong in the hatchery in the middle of the night, he was often the first one to arrive on the scene.
Elizabeth gushed about the support and interest Islanders gave to the project. She seems amazed still at the number of volunteers who helped out, people who donated supplies and organizations that gave small grants as supplemental funding. Elizabeth left just as much of an impression on the Island community. Bret talked about how knowledgeable Elizabeth is, and he was also impressed by how she jumped right in alongside everyone else, tagging and releasing the flounder. In addition to being a well-respected scientist, “she’s a real flounder cowgirl,” he said.
While Elizabeth knew that the 5,000 fish they released was “just a drop in the bucket,” the group went ahead with the release because it was a way to teach and test the process. The flounder were raised in the hatchery until they were approximately four months old, when they were then tagged pink or orange. The fish tagged pink were placed in the pond in cages to give them a few days to acclimate to their new home. On the release day, the cages were opened to let the flounder swim out and the orange-tagged fish were released directly into the water.
Back in his fishing shack, about nine months after the winter flounder were released, John talked about how dedicated he was to the project, how it felt “like an opportunity to give back to the fishery.” There were some nights, when the fishwere still hatching from their eggs, that John and his wife would be at the hatchery at 10:30 or 11 at night, moving the tiny fish from their “hatching tanks” to the “grow out tanks.” As a commercial fisherman, he would like to see fishing “get back to a real pace of the seasons.” The winter flounder were always an important part of a fisherman’s catch. Now, with strict limits on fishing this species, there’s a relationship that’s been lost in the Southern New England Fishery. Every piece of the process that John describes sounds just as much like an art as it does a science; it was some mixture of routine, creativity and love.
The National Sea grant funded the winter flounder stock enhancement project for two years. After the release the group sampled the pond to see how the winter flounder were faring. In true Island style everyone pitched in to help and scallopers on the pond looked for the tagged flounder as they went about their work. The group hopes to get more funding to continue the project. Now that the hatchery is up and running, and a group of Islanders are trained in raising and releasing the fish, everyone seems hopeful that a second round would produce significantly more winter flounder.
At Larsen’s Fish Market, Betsy described the many ways to prepare the winter flounder filets: breaded and pan-fried, filled with a bread stuffing and baked in the oven, filled with blanched green beans and rubbed with pesto, or filled with blanched asparagus, baked and served with hollandaise sauce. Four recipes and four good reasons to care about the growth of the winter flounder stock in our Southern New England fishery.
If more funding is secured and the hatchery gets up and running again, would John step back into his role as the hatchery manager? He smiles wide, his eyes crinkle at the edges and he holds up his hands for emphasis: “If UNH called today, I would do it again tomorrow,” he says.