NJ Fluke Fishing Industry in Flux

February 14, 2017
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Frank McDonald, left, and John Amici, who both oversee operations at the Atlantic Highlands Harbor, believe that new fluke regulations will damage New Jersey’s recreational fishing economy.

By Jay Cook |

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – After a decision made last week aimed at protecting the Atlantic Ocean’s primary cash fish, New Jersey anglers now believe their industry is in dire straits.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a federally regulated authority that oversees fishing management for the 15 states along the Atlantic Coast, has decided to increase regulations on summer flounder for 2017.

“With what they’re proposing, it’s going to be the final nail in our coffin,” said Ron Santi, a head boat captain based out of Atlantic Highlands.

On Feb. 2, the ASMFC passed Addendum XXVIII with a 7-3-2 vote, choosing Option 5, which calls for new recreational regulations on summer flounder, commonly known as fluke.

Those sanctions propose an increase in keeper length from 18” to 19”, along with a reduction in bag limits from five fish to three. The season length will remain the same, though, open from May 21 through Sept. 25.

“When looking at recreational and commercial fisheries on a whole, it seems as though for 20 to 30 years, we’ve been fishing at a higher level than the resources can sustain,” said Kirby Rootes-Murdy, a senior fishery management plan coordinator with ASMFC.

Between recreational and commercial fishing, fluking generates nearly $2.5 billion for the state’s economy, according to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection.

Santi, captain of the 72-foot head boat named Fishermen, believes these are draconian sanctions which could kill the recreational fishing industry. The new regulation could effectively reduce recreational fluke fishing hauls by roughly 30 percent.

“I’m sick of the bureaucracy looking down at me – we’re part of the country, too,” he said.

In addition to Belmar and Point Pleasant, the Atlantic Highlands Harbor is one of the more popular head (or party) boat fishing destinations in Monmouth County. Though what makes Atlantic Highlands unique is the harbor is run as a public utility, similar to water and sewer departments in other towns.

According to Adam Hubeny, the borough’s administrator, the Atlantic Highlands Harbor sends nearly $1 million back to the municipality every year, which is used to offset property taxes.

“Anytime the harbor is in a position to lose any part of its fishing fleet, the tenants that lease mooring and berthing space or have boaters who don’t buy fuel, that will have an ill effect on the municipal taxes,” Hubeny said.

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The Atlantic Highlands Harbor, which was constructed between 1938 and 1940, oversees one primary launch ramp, eight head boat slips, roughly 475 regular slips, 171 moorings for sailboats and 125 spots for summer land storages.

On Tuesday afternoon, crew members of the Donna Lynn unload a day trip’s worth of spiny dogfish, which were being packaged and shipped immediately to Massachusetts.

John Amici, the harbor manager, believes the deep fishing history is a trademark of Atlantic Highlands.

Tasked with ensuring the harbor is as full with boats as possible, Amici said he’s already received calls from boaters who are questioning whether or not to dock their boats there this summer.

“It’s part of the charm of Atlantic Highlands to come down, walk by the water and look at the boats,” he said. “It’s just a big attraction.”

Frank McDonald, the harbor commission chairman, says Atlantic Highlands has invested money into the harbor so it can be competitive on the shore.

“This is what the town has banked on, and I certainly hope we can keep it going,” McDonald said. “When you have stuff like this, it’s really tough.”

Both Amici and McDonald believe these new regulations could not only hurt the fisherman, but the businesses who depend on steady and successful fluking.

While most bait and tackle shops are closed this time of the year, 87-year-old Ernie Giglio was at work in his shop Monday morning, ironically preparing to make fluke rigs.

“We’re really geared for fluke fishing and striped bass, those are the two big ones,” said Giglio, whose son Tom now owns Giglio’s Bait and Tackle in Sea Bright.

Since 1961, the shop has been a fluke fishing hub, attracting anglers who fish from the head boats, the surf and on kayaks in the ocean.

Not one fond of government restrictions, Giglio said his son’s business will feel the effects of these new rules, because a majority of the store’s summer time traffic comes from fluke fishing. While the shop still may stay afloat thanks to the other fish in the area, he continues to worry.

“I think we’ll still survive with the striped bass and the bluefish, as long as they come around, but the fluke will definitely have a huge effect on us,” Giglio said. “I hope it doesn’t wipe us out.”

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As a whole, state officials sharing the anglers’ concerns are coming out against ASMFC’s decisions. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. has been out front with the anglers, joining them in opposition. NJ DEP commissioner Bob Martin has come on as well.

In a Jan. 19 letter to Rootes-Murdy, Martin wrote that Addendum XXVIII would “serve as a de facto moratorium on summer flounder for the recreational fishing industry in New Jersey.”

If New Jersey were not to accept the Option Five measures, a precautionary default measure would be implemented for recreational fluke fishing – a 20” size limit and a bag limit of two fish. Rootes-Murdy said this measure is used as a backstop to ensure states follow the approved guidelines.

Not forgotten in this equation are the commercial fisherman, who are constantly monitoring federal fluking regulations.

In August 2016, the ASMFC and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council – a regional fishery management entity that covers waters from New York to North Carolina – decided that, due to the possible over fishing of fluke, a 30 percent decrease in the commercial quota would be necessary. That would put the 2017 quota down 5.66 million pounds commercially for the year.

The Belford Seafood Co-Op, a fishing enterprise operating on approximately 11 acres of land on bay side of Middletown, is a key player in New Jersey’s commercial fishing scene.

Roy Diehl, captain of the Donna Lynn – a 60’ commercial trawler out of the Belford Seafood Co-Op – fishes for fluke all year. He says roughly 50 percent of the dock’s income is dependent on fluke.

Roy Diehl, Co-Op president and captain of the Donna Lynn, is just one out of a few year-round commercial flukers based out of Belford.

He estimates that 50 percent of the dock’s income comes from fluke.

“We should be at 13 to 14 million pounds per year, half of what it was in the 1980’s when it was 30 million a year,” Diehl said.

While the yearly quotas are set, Diehl must meet specific guidelines which spread out his fishing days. Right now, he is allowed to catch 1,500 pounds of fluke every two weeks. In peak season, which is May and June, he’ll be able to catch 500 pounds per trip, with four trips in a week.

Although a proponent for appropriate management, he says that the fishing can be regulated efficiently through new data gathering methods, a claim constantly brought up along with fluke regulations.

Instead of data-gathering boats trailing the commercial fisherman, Diehl suggests the commercial folks do the data gathering themselves.

“It’s just a shame that they won’t let us fish,” he said. “We’re not asking for a lot; we just want to be within reason.”

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