By Jay Cook |
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – Go ahead and enjoy that sigh of relief, New Jersey fishermen.
After months of back and forth over what regulations would be placed on New Jersey summer flounder fishing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross approved New Jersey’s self-designed regulations.
That means the summer flounder season will stay open after fears arose last month of a federal shutdown.
“We are very pleased that NOAA worked with us to understand our position that sound science and good long-term planning must drive decisions about the management of summer flounder, one of the state’s most important recreational and commercial fish species,” New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Commissioner Bob Martin said in a press release.
The decision means recreational fishing regulations New Jersey adopted just before the start of the summer flounder season – spanning from May 25 through Sept. 5 – will continue. Albeit a more shortened season than fishermen have come to know, the minimum fish sizes are the real kicker.
The minimum size remains at 18” for the majority of coastal waters, from the ocean to creeks and estuaries. There is a three-fish bag limit for those waters.
In the Delaware Bay, there is a 17” fish size minimum with a three-fish bag limit. For anglers who fish off the coast of Island Beach State Park, the numbers differ a bit more. A 16” fish size minimum is set there, with a bag limit of two fish.
The nearly half-year fight to keep the summer flounder season open began in February, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) – a federally regulated authority that oversees fishing management for 15 states along the East Coast – decided to bump up regulations for New Jersey.
Their guidelines came from concerns that the summer flounder stock was experiencing overfishing, yet not completely overfished.
ASMFC proposed a 19” size minimum with a three- fish bag limit for most state waters; an 18” minimum and three-fish bag limit in the Delaware Bay; and a 17” size minimum with a two-fish limit off Island Beach State Park. The season would have stayed open for 128 days, compared to the current 104- day season.
In June, ASMFC found New Jersey “out of compliance” over the state’s disregard to align with the federal mandates. A notice was sent to Secretary Ross’ office to make a final decision – to approve or deny New Jersey’s counter proposal.
If Ross found New Jersey out of compliance, a federal moratorium on summer flounder fishing would have been instituted, essentially shutting the season down.
Between both recreational and commercial fishing, the industry generates about $2.5 billion of economic activity each year, NJDEP has said.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle pleaded with Ross to keep the summer flounder season open for New Jersey recreational fishermen.
“The Commerce Secretary and NOAA made the right decision by affirming New Jersey’s innovative summer flounder management plan,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) said in a statement.
“The decision to not institute a fishing moratorium, and instead accept New Jersey’s more balanced and reasonable summer catch standards, will sustain New Jersey’s summer flounder industries while upholding conservation standards,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), also in a statement.
For Jersey Shore anglers, the decision’s impact was evident. A full lot of cars packed the Atlantic Highlands municipal harbor on Wednesday afternoon, the first full day after the announcement.
“We dodged a bullet,” said Tom Buban, captain of the Atlantic Star head boat, after a morning on the water.
While the decision floated through government agencies, Buban said he tried not to worry about a federal moratorium on his industry. He just kept fishing.
“The only ones that fought were New Jersey,” Buban said. “So I guess for once, we can thank the state.”
Just down a few slips, Walt Wietrzykowski exited the Dorothy B. with his grandson Liam.
Despite only a single keeper from the morning trip, the Linden native was relieved to know the season isn’t over.
“It’s good because we see all the people that like to get on the water and enjoy the day,” he said. “It gets to keep these guys in business.”
The state’s main arguing point with ASMFC’s standards was regarding high mortality rates over throwbacks, believing it would become significantly more common if a higher size minimum was instituted.
Now with an affirmation, NJDEP and its Division of Fish and Wildlife are looking to increase public outreach and education about how to safely fish the summer flounder stock.
NJDEP said 20,000 free larger-sized hooks will be given out to fishing shops around the state. The bigger hooks are designed for bigger fish, reducing the chance of a discard.
It will also implement publication of printed and electronic brochures to the thousands of registered saltwater fishermen in New Jersey, as well as utilizing public service announcements and newspaper advertisements for awareness.
“New Jersey is fully committed to employing science and public education to conserve a species that is critical to the fishing culture and economy of the state,” Martin said.
This article was first published in the July 13-20, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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