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NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin meets with New Jersey’s outdoor writers to discuss the summer flounder situation, while also welcoming NOAA’s John Bullard to New Jersey with less than open arms.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  April 2, 2017
NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin (center) presents assistant NJDEP commissioner Rich Boornazian (right) and acting Division of Fish and Wildlife director Larry Herrighty (left) with Gov. Chris Christie’s proclamation naming March 30, Fish and Wildlife Day in in honor of the creation in 1892 of the state’s first game department.

In a letter dated March 24, New Jersey’s three commissioners on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) formally issued an appeal to the February 2 approval of Option 5 under regional management, specifically the measures which would require a 1-inch size increase on New Jersey’s current recreational summer flounder limit and bag limit decrease from five fish to three.

The official appeal follows a specific process outlined in the Interstate Fisheries Management Program (ISFMP) charter, a document outlining standard operating procedures and policies of the ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program.

The ISFMP Charter was initially developed in response to federal law authorizing the Secretary of Commerce to preempt any state fishery deemed not in compliance with an ASMFC fishery management plan, although it also provides states the ability to argue for relief from ASMFC actions through an appeals process.

Read the full 14-page appeal from the state of New Jersey,

“With New Jersey’s administrative options exhausted, New Jersey now files this appeal based on the criteria in the Appeals Process 2 and the ISFMP Charter,” the official letter states, detailing how the February decision will result in specific adverse impacts to New Jersey’s recreational summer flounder industry and the overall summer flounder fishery industry.

“Second, this appeal shows that the Board did not properly apply technical information in using Marine Recreational Statistical Program (MRIP) harvest estimates and failed to consider the biological impact of increased size limits on the fishery,” the letter further states, while also challenging the process by which the final Option 5 decision was made.

Citing specific criteria for appeal, the three ASMFC representatives from New Jersey - Administrative Commissioner Larry Herrighty, Governor’s Appointee Tom Fote, and Legislative Commissioner Assemblyman Robert Andrzejczak – signed off on the document which made specific mention of bycatch mortality and the disproportionate removal of breeding females, the variability and untimeliness of MRIP data, inaccuracies in the draft document itself and failure by ASMFC to properly consider public comments.

At an outdoor writer’s workshop in Upper Freehold Township on Thursday, March 30, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Commissioner Bob Martin said the official letter of appeal has been delivered to the ASMFC, with copies sent to NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Commerce advising leadership of course of action being taken by the state of New Jersey.

“We are appealing this 34% quota reduction which will have a devastating impact on the state’s fishing industry and tourism economy,” Martin said, adding “it will also harm the long-term health of the state’s summer flounder stocks. If we go forward with these regulations mortality rates of the fish returned to the water will be higher than those that are harvested. This will be the first time in the state’s history that this will happen.”

Learn more about why increasing size may be decreasing the stock.

Martin noted that the ASMFC will meet again on May 8 in Alexandria, VA where New Jersey’s commissioners will make their appeal on behalf of the pending regulations in state waters. Meanwhile, there’s a separate process is already underway at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) to set 2017 regulations in federal waters outside the 3-mile line, which also has yet to be finalized. NJDEP’s commissioner stressed that until a final regulatory decision gets handed down as approved by the Commerce Department, no new regulations were officially required for any of the Atlantic Coastal states at this point, so overall compliance was not yet an issue.

“At the moment we are not changing the regulations, we’re going through the administrative process right now,” he said stressing that New Jersey was not out of compliance with anything at this point, nor did the state plan on doing so.

“We’re making it clear to the Commerce Department that we do not want them moving those regulations forward at the federal level,” Martin said on Thursday. “We’re working to talk to them directly on trying to intercede on what the Council recommends at the same time.”

Martin said he and his team have had multiple meetings in Washington DC with both legislators and officials alike inside both the Commerce Department and NOAA Fisheries to review the fluke issue. “We met with Sam Rauch who is the acting assistant administrator for NOAA for fisheries, and we had good dialog with him about the process and how we move forward, what the issues were,” Martin said. “It was a much better dialog than I thought we were going to have, so that was helpful.”

While Commissioner Martin spoke highly of most of the NOAA Fisheries and Commerce Department staffers he’s met in and around Washington DC, he was also quite candid with outdoor writers attending the March 30 workshop that this wasn’t necessarily his opinion of all NOAA representatives.

On Monday, April 3, an invite-only event at the Manasquan Reservoir Visitor Center Howell, NJ is being hosted by NOAA Fisheries and its Northeast Regional Administrator, John Bullard. Several groups and individuals invited to participate in the roundtable discussion have turned down the NOAA request in protest, specifically citing Bullard’s dealings – or lack thereof - with New Jersey fishermen. Asked to provide comment on the NOAA event, Martin was apprehensive.

“I have my concerns about it,” Martin admitted of the April 3 meeting. “John Bullard is a political appointee, left over from the Obama administration, he has not been a friend to the state of New Jersey.”

The commissioner encouraged those invited to participate in Monday’s private roundtable discussion to do so, particularly he said if “other professionals are coming from NOAA and from NMFS.” Martin said there were plenty of “good professionals” at NOAA Fisheries, and if there were staff members attending who wished “to have a real dialog and collect real input” at the meeting in Howell, then he thought “organizations should go deliver their point of view.”

“I can’t say enough good things about Sam Rauch from NOAA, as he’s willing to listen, give us direction and be helpful,” Martin told outdoor writers, adding “John Bullard has not been helpful at all.”

Agenda items for Monday’s invite-only discussion include a presentation by former New York DEC staffer Gordon Colvin who has been contracted by the federal government to spearhead the MRIP implementation, as well as an electronic reporting discussion with Capt. Rick Bellavance, a vocal advocate for separating the recreational fishing community into “private angler” and “for-hire” subsectors. Considered a pathway to catch share and fish tag mechanisms promoted by President Obama’s former NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, Jane Lubchenco, the sector-separation plan is vehemently opposed by many national fishing organizations including the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA).

“Mr. Bullard took great pleasure in carrying out the Obama/Lubchenco agenda on fisheries in this country,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. “We are hoping new Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will give serious consideration to replacing Regional Administrator John Bullard who has been hostile to the recreational sector as a whole since he was appointed.”