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With the May 21 season opener closing in fast, fisheries managers and state officials prepare for a final showdown in New Jersey’s fight against a three fish at 19-inch bag limit on fluke.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  May 7, 2017
With the May 21 season opener closing in fast for New Jersey summer flounder anglers, fisheries managers and state officials prepare for the final showdown on size and bag limits in Virginia this week that could lead to a three fish bag limit and 19-inch size limit.

While New York and Delaware have each adjusted their 2017 summer flounder season to mesh with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) vote in February, New Jersey’s recreational season remains the same as it was in 2016.

This week, it all comes to a head!

On Wednesday, May 10 from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., the ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Management Board and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) will meet jointly at the Westin Alexandria at 400 Courthouse Square, Alexandria, Virginia.

Sometime during that meeting, the assembled members of the ASMFC and MAFMC will review state compliance with Addendum XXVIII summer flounder recreational measures for 2017; they’ll also be reviewing a white paper on summer flounder recreational specifications presented by Bob Ballou with the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife.

It’s possible that ASFMC could officially take a vote that New Jersey is “out of compliance” with the 2017 summer flounder regulations, at which point a process would begin to get underway by which NOAA Fisheries and ultimately the Department of Commerce would have to consider making an official call of non-compliance.

Prior to that actually happening however, the ASFMC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Policy Board will meet on Thursday, May 11 from 8 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., at which point the member states along with representatives of both the Commerce (NMFS) and Interior Department (USFWS) will review and the official New Jersey appeal of Addendum XXVIII.

So while ASMFC could vote on Wednesday to recommend that the Secretary of Commerce take up action against the state of New Jersey for failing to comply with their February vote, nothing is expected to be finalized until New Jersey’s official appeal is heard and reviewed on Thursday morning.

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 appeal to ASMFC - with copies sent to both NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Commerce - was not exclusively about the direct impact on individual anglers and the recreational fishing industry, but the fish itself. “It will also harm the long-term health of the state’s summer flounder stocks,” Martin told reporters, adding “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.”

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.”

The ongoing fluke fiasco has been confusing to say the least. In late April, New York’s Marine Resource Advisory Council which advises the state on marine fisheries matters explained to members of the public how the ASMFC technical committee and NOAA Fisheries had officially “accepted” the Option Five proposal which would require New York, Connecticut and New Jersey to adhere to a three fish and 19-inch size limit on fluke during a 128-day season (New Jersey’s expected start of that season is May 21).

As recently noted at TheFisherman.com, at issue is the fact that Option Five only meets a 30-percent reduction in recreational harvest for 2017, and not the 41-percent reduction originally required by NOAA Fisheries and the Commerce Department. In an email on Wednesday, April 19, NOAA Fisheries solicited public comment to continue with the "conservation equivalency" approach to management in which states develop state or regional minimum sizes, possession limits, and fishing seasons that will achieve the necessary level of conservation while supporting a recommended coastwide management measure for summer flounder, which would include a 19-inch minimum size limit, four fish bag and open season from June 1 to September 15.

Outside of that email blast, NOAA Fisheries has said nothing publicly about New York’s preferred Option Five as per the ASMFC vote in February and whether or not it really hits the reduction mark the agency had previously outlined. However, as per the NOAA release, if ASMFC is unable to implement the measures approved at their February meeting, either due to New Jersey’s appeal or based on a technical ruling that the three at 19-inch size limit for the Connecticut, New York and New Jersey region fails to meet the 41% reduction required by NOAA Fisheries, the coastwide standard of a 19-inch minimum size limit, four fish bag and June 1 to September 15 season would be put into place.

Procedurally speaking, NOAA Fisheries’ April 19 notice also includes language that could result in New Jersey’s federally permitted for-hire boats being required to comply with the non-preferred measures of two fish at 20 inches and a July 1 through August 31 season, if ASMFC votes to find the state officially out of compliance this week.

The final showdown comes to a head starting Wednesday with the compliancy question, moving along Thursday morning during review of the official appeal. Thus far, NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Commerce have refused to show their hand; and while some think the state of New Jersey is simply bluffing, the Christie administration has doubled down pretty well while holding cards close to the vest.

It’ll be interesting to see if anyone has something up their sleeve!

For those curious as to how the sausage gets made in this fisheries political intrigue, tune in for the live showing on Wednesday starting at 1 p.m., Thursday as early as 8 a.m.

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