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About an hour before the ASMFC fluke hearing in Galloway, NJ the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council asks the State of New Jersey to just say no!
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  January 5, 2017
Nearly 150 anglers and business owners packed the inside of the Galloway Township Branch of the Atlantic County Library on January 5 to speak out - and often - against the 2017 summer flounder options presented by the ASFMC.

As many New Jersey fishermen were still searching for the Galloway Exit of the Garden State Parkway to find their way to the Thursday night fluke hearing at the Galloway Township Branch of the Atlantic County Library, members of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council) were already making their position clear on the suite of options being considered for the 2017 summer flounder season.

In the words of legendary WWII Army General Anthony McAuliffe, “NUTS!”

“It’s time we made a line in the sand,” said Council member Bob Rush as he made a motion to “keep status quo for the summer flounder recreational regulations for 2017, as was 2016, until the next peer-reviewed benchmark stock assessment is completed.”

The Sea Isle City party boat captain’s (Starfish Boats) motion was then seconded by fellow Council member Joe Rizzo, a commercial clammer and duck hunting guide, and ultimately approved by a 9-1 vote by the entire Council.

That vote of course doesn’t mean New Jersey is out of the woods, nor did it disregard the need for the public comment period for response to the Summer Flounder Draft Addendum XXVII voted on by the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in December.

What it does do however is it delivers a strong message of unity in New Jersey with the approved Council motion to be delivered to Bob Martin, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and then ultimately to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Whether or not Governor Christie responds in kind to the ASMFC, and ultimately NOAA Fisheries, that’s just another future next step in the process.

Options being presented by the ASFMC in response to the NOAA Fisheries reduction mandates need to follow a public comment period. In February the ASMFC and MAFMC will convene together in Kitty Hawk, NC to make a final decision, and then any final approved option will be sent back to the states and their respective councils to decide on a local implementation plan.

“There are no consequences to the Council,” said Jersey Coast Anglers Association (JCAA) legislative chair Tom Fote of the vote. Fote is also Governor Christie’s proxy at the ASMFC. “But the Council is sending a message to the Commissioner that this is unacceptable, and that the Commissioner and the Governor need to get involved.”

In other words, Council has given the Christie administration support in taking the fight back to the federal government; given the sentiment of the assembled crowd at the Galloway library after the 6:30 p.m. start of the official ASMFC fluke discussion, that’s a great thing too.

After given a brief presentation by ASFMC’s Senior Fishery Management Plan Coordinator Kirby Rootes-Murdy on a process by which ASFMC is essentially forced by NOAA Fisheries to come up with set of management options to meet the federal government’s goal of reducing fishing effort and harvest, frustrated anglers and business owners began railing against the draconian measures being offered up by the fisheries managers.

One by one, members of advocate groups like JCAA and the Recreational Fishing Alliance spoke out against the data used by NOAA Fisheries in mandating the cuts, with Nick Cicero, Sales Manager of a Mahwah, NJ based national tackle distributor, noting recreational overage numbers in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are unfounded based on his tackle wholesale figures for 2016.

“If more people went fluke fishing and more fluke were caught, more Gulp would be bought, more fluke hooks would be bought, more jigs would be bought, that’s not the truth,” Cicero said. “I can substantiate my numbers, they can’t substantiate theirs.”

After several speeches were met with resounding applause, Capt. Adam Nowalsky of the charter boat Karen Ann of Atlantic City stopped the proceedings to ask the packed house a simple question as one of New Jersey’s representatives at the MAFMC and a legislative proxy for Assemblyman Robert Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) at the ASFMC. “Just so I know, is there anyone in this room that’s going to speak in favor of any of these options?”

Approximately 135 members in the library meeting room and another three dozen standing outside the door replied in unison, “no.”

Capt. Nowalski, an outspoken advocate for recreational fishermen at both the ASMFC and MAFMC smiled his approval and sat back down to listen to the public comments.

“I agree with Bob (Rush), it’s time to draw a line in the sand and send a message to the powers that be,” said Jerry Zagorski, manager of NJFishing.com.

“We are watching the systematic demise of an American pastime,” said angler Lester Newhall; his son Capt. Scott, a regular contributor to The Fisherman Magazine, said afterwards that many of his friends told him they couldn't even get into the hallway of the library because of the crowded conditions.

At issue for many in the room was the status of the recreational data harvest survey. Formerly referred to as the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (MRFSS), NOAA Fisheries has been working to redesign the collection methodology ever since a 2006 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review deemed it “fatally flawed” and desperately in need of an overhaul. That same year in response, Congress passed a new law requiring that MRFSS be replaced to the NAS specifications.

On Tuesday, January 10, NAS is expected to post the results of their latest review of the NOAA Fisheries effort to replace MRFSS with their new Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).

Despite what NAS may find with regarding to MRFSS to MRIP, not many fishermen in New Jersey seemed too impressed with NOAA’s efforts thus far in their comments to the ASFMC.

“I taught science for 31 years,” said Capt. Steve Bent of the Cape May based charter boat Free Spirit. “If these biologists, if this is the way they gather information, and they were in my science class, I would’ve failed them.”

“Clearly your proposal has struck a nerve,” said angler Tom Trageser of Brick who has gathered close to 3,500 signatures in a paper and online petition that he and the RFA plan to deliver to incoming Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

RFA executive director Jim Donofrio who stood beside Sen. Schumer and other fishermen at Captree State Park in New York on December 28 said Schumer will be requesting an emergency action by Secretary Ross to halt the quota reduction while an expedited fluke population assessment can be completed in 2017 and a review of the recreational landings data is instituted, which is exactly what the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council voted for in their 9-1 decision on January 5.

"Senator Schumer recognized the gravity of the problem and requested a meeting the next day to discuss leading an effort to avert what will be a death blow to an industry already struggling under the burden of over-regulation," Donofrio said of his discussions with Schumer.

At a December 28 press conference on Long Island, Sen. Schumer pledged to “reach out to President-elect Donald Trump, Ross and whoever I have to to get this changed.”

Prior to the January 5 hearing in Galloway Township, New Jersey members of Congress including Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, along with Representatives Frank LoBiondo, Tom MacArthur and Frank Pallone, sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker asking her to prevent rulemaking that would reduce the summer flounder quotas for recreational and commercial fishing. The letter asks the Secretary to direct NOAA Fisheries to reexamine its methodologies and conduct a new benchmark summer flounder assessment before making any decision to reduce the fluke quota.

Pritzker of course is President Obama’s current Secretary of Commerce, the agency which oversees NOAA Fisheries, whereas Ross is the incoming Secretary appointed by President-Elect Donald Trump. At least one “Make America Great Again” hat in the audience at the Thursday night meeting in Atlantic County had the words “fluke” taped to the cap.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s DEP Commissioner has already weighed in on the actions by ASMFC and MAFMC in response to the NOAA Fisheries edict, essentially calling the measures a “moratorium” on summer flounder fishing in the state. “I strongly urge the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to overturn these actions and keep current regulations in effect, so that all partners can work toward a stable management approach that provides long-term conservation of summer flounder without continually placing New Jersey at a disadvantage to other states,” noted Commissioner Martin.

The series of ASMFC public hearings will continue through the rest of the month, with Delaware to hold there’s on January 17 at 6 p.m. at the DNREC Auditorium at 89 Kings Highway in Dover, DE. For more information you can contact John Clark at john.clark@state.de.us 302-739-9914.

Anglers and stakeholders who would still like to provide official comment on Draft Addendum XXVIII can do so until 5 p.m. on January 19, 2017 by mailing to 1050 N. Highland St, Suite A-N, Arlington, VA 22201 or by email at krootes-murdy@asmfc.org (Subject line: Summer Flounder Draft Addendum XXVIII)