navigation

Winter Flounder

Pseudopleuronectes americanus

Winter flounder

Also Known As

  • Flounder
  • Sole
  • Lemon sole
  • Georges Bank flounder
  • Blackback flounder

U.S. wild-caught winter flounder is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.

Population

Significantly below target population levels in Georges Bank and Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic. Rebuilding plans are in place for both stocks. The population level is unknown in the Gulf of Maine.

Fishing Rate

At recommended levels in Georges Bank, Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic, and Gulf of Maine.

Habitat Impacts

Area closures and gear restrictions protect habitats that are affected by some kinds of trawl gear.

Bycatch

Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch.

  • Availability

    Year-round.

  • Source

    U.S. wild-caught from Maine to Virginia.

  • Taste

    Mild.

  • Texture

    Lean, boneless, and flaky.

  • Color

    Raw flounder ranges in color from tan to pinkish to snow white. Cooked flounder is pure white.

  • Health Benefits

    Flounder is a good, low-fat source of B vitamins and niacin.

The U.S. Fishery

Fishery Management

  • There are three stocks of winter flounder in U.S. waters, the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stocks.
  • NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council manage the fishery in federal waters. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission coordinates management of winter flounder in state waters (0 to 3 miles offshore).
  • Winter flounder, along with other groundfish in New England waters, are managed under the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, which includes:
    • Permitting requirements for commercial vessels.
    • Separate management measures for recreational vessels.
    • Time/Area Closures to protect spawning fish and habitat.
    • Minimum fish sizes to prevent harvest of juvenile fish.
    • Annual catch limits, based on best available science.
    • An optional sector (catch share) program can be used for winter flounder and other groundfish species. The sector program allows fishermen to form harvesting cooperatives and work together to decide when, where, and how they harvest fish.

Harvest

  • Commercial fishery:
    • In 2019, commercial landings of winter flounder totaled approximately 1.3 million pounds, and were valued at more than $3.6 million, according to the NOAA Fisheries commercial fishing landings database. These figures may not match other agency sources of data due to confidential information.
  • Gear types, habitat impacts, and bycatch:
    • Winter flounder are commonly harvested using trawl nets and to a lesser extent gillnets.
    • Areas closures and gear restrictions reduce habitat impacts from trawl nets.  Fishermen follow management measures to designed to reduce interactions with marine mammals, including gear modifications, seasonal closures, and use of marine mammal deterrents.
  • Recreational fishery:
    • There is a small recreational fishery for winter flounder. Anglers use bait to target flounder in nearshore waters.
    • Regulations include seasons, minimum fish sizes, and possession limits.

The Science

Population Status

  • In U.S. waters, there are three stocks of winter flounder: Georges Bank, Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic, and Gulf of Maine. According to the most recent stock assessments:
    • The Georges Bank stock is overfished, remains in a rebuilding plan, and is not subject to overfishing (2019 stock assessment). Summary stock assessment information can be found on Stock SMART.

    • The Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock is still overfished, but not subject to overfishing (2017 stock assessment). The initial rebuilding plan was from 2004 to 2014, but later extended to 2023. Summary stock assessment information can be found on Stock SMART.

    • The Gulf of Maine stock is the smallest of the three winter flounder stocks. The results of the 2017 stock assessment were highly uncertain, and scientists were unable to determine an abundance estimate for this stock. However, they were able to determine that the stock is not subject to overfishing. Summary stock assessment information can be found on Stock SMART.

Location

  • Winter flounder are found in estuaries and on the continental shelf of the Northwest Atlantic, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada to North Carolina. They are most common north of Delaware Bay.

Habitat

  • Winter flounder get their name because of their migrations. In the winter, adults migrate from offshore areas where they feed to inshore bays and estuaries where they spawn.
  • While inshore, they live on muddy sand, clean sand, clay, and pebbly or gravelly bottom habitats.
  • They often bury their whole body, except for their eyes, in bottom sediments.
  • Larvae and some 1-year-olds live in the estuaries where they were born.
  • Juveniles prefer sand or sand-silt bottoms with a wide range of salinity and temperature.

Physical Description

  • Winter flounder have an oval shape and a thick body.
  • Their eyes are on the right side of their body.
  • They have a straight lateral line and dark coloring.
  • Their coloring often varies with their habitat, ranging from muddy to slightly reddish brown, olive green, or dark slate, to an almost black upper side.
  • Their underside is white, and their dorsal and anal fins are often tinged with pink, red, or yellow.

Biology

  • Winter flounder live 15 to 18 years and grow to more than 2 feet in length.
  • They spawn during the winter and spring in shallow inshore waters, often returning to the same areas where they were born to spawn.
  • Females usually produce between 500,000 and 1.5 million eggs.
  • They deposit their eggs on sandy bottoms and algal mats at night, usually about 40 times every spawning season.
  • Newly hatched larvae have one eye on each side of the head.
  • Five to six weeks after they hatch, larvae settle to the bottom to begin their transformation into juveniles.
  • After weeks of adapting to living on the bottom, their left eye migrates to the right side of their body and their metamorphosis is complete.
  • The growth and survival rates of larvae and juveniles depend on several factors, including temperature, salinity, water quality, and the availability of food.
  • Winter flounder feed during the day because they depend on sight to locate prey.
  • Their small mouths limit what they can eat.
  • They feed on small invertebrates, shrimp, clams, and worms.
  • Fish (mainly striped bass, bluefish, toadfish, and summer flounder), birds, invertebrates, winter skate, and marine mammals prey on larval and juvenile winter flounder.
  • Atlantic cod, spiny dogfish, and monkfish prey on adults.

Research

  • Scientists at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center conduct bottom trawl surveys every year during the fall and spring in inshore and offshore areas off the northeast coast to assess and monitor the abundance of winter flounder and other species. Managers use this data, along with information from state agency and university-run surveys, to determine the status of the winter flounder population. Northeast Groundfish Operational Assessments website.
  • Research has indicated that winter flounder is an excellent candidate for stock enhancement, in which juvenile fish hatched from wild brood stock are raised in captivity and released into the wild. Scientists now know how to raise winter flounder and have learned how to release them in a way that maximizes their survival in the wild.
  • Research has also focused on understanding the impact of farm-raised winter flounder on the wild population. Fishermen, scientists, members of the aquaculture industry, and fisheries managers are all collaborating in this research to find ways to protect and enhance winter flounder and its fishery.

Last updated: 08/18/2020