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The debate over Yankee fluke and Phillie flounder is expected to spill over this Wednesday as the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council meets to perhaps finalize the 2017 season.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  May 15, 2017
The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council meets on Wednesday, May 17 at 4 p.m. at Avalon Community Center where they will open the floor to public comment and ultimately decide the fate of the 2017 summer flounder season.

The last time New Jersey anglers were stuck with a restrictive Memorial Day to Labor Day summer flounder season was in 2010; as for being saddled with a 19-inch recreational size limit on this ever-popular summer species, it’s never happened.

Those two points come to a head this week as North Jersey and South Jersey anglers and recreational fishing industry leaders are expected to argue it out at the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council) on Wednesday, May 17 at 4 p.m. at Avalon Community Center, 3001 Avalon Road in Avalon, NJ.

Last week at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meeting in Alexandria, VA, New Jersey’s months long fight against the three fish at 19-inch size limit and 128-day season imposed by a February ASMFC vote for continuing the tri-state region of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey took a major turn when New Jersey representatives dropped word of a plan to allow New Jersey to once again becomes its own, “conservationally equivalent” region, with a three fish and 18-inch size limit on fluke.

However, the plan which still needs approval by the ASFMC technical committee would also cut back the number of allowable fishing days in New Jersey to just 104, and the concept of a Memorial Day to Labor Day fluke season from Cape May to Sandy Hook has anglers and business owners on both sides of the north/south dividing line up in arms once again!

In 2010, faced with a smaller quota and the ability to manage state-specific regulations on summer flounder, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) with support from its Council opted to truncate the fluke season in marine waters to just over 100 days in an effort to keep the size limit from going over 18 inches. By comparison, in opting to get an extra couple of weeks of season that year, New York saw its size limit on fluke increased to a whopping 21 inches.

Three years later in response to diminishing fishing days, increasing size limits and an inability manage its way out of the larger fish box, New York lobbied ASFMC to create a tri-state region including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in lockstep regulations. During much of that time with increasing size limits in the region, stock analysis by federal fisheries managers shows the biomass of spawning fluke has taken a downward trend, as have recruitment levels of young fish into the stock.

While the Christie administration had been hopeful that other states would’ve joined them in with the fight to oppose the massive quota hit on summer flounder in 2017 and the ever-increasing recreational size limit, it’s become apparent that New Jersey has been fighting a mostly quixotic battle against government red tape while neighboring states stifled their opposition. However, as NJDEP commissioner Bob Martin testified before the ASMFC last week, it’s also been a battle to better manage the fluke fishery as a whole.

“Setting the size minimum at 19 inches will have the unintended consequence of driving the recruitment rate down. That’s because 90% of the 19-inch fish in New Jersey’s water are females capable of breeding,” Martin said in his testimony. “The last thing any of us should want is to target the females responsible for increasing recruitment. We want to ensure the health of our summer flounder stock this summer and for years to come.”

In presenting what he called “a significant concession by the State of New Jersey” by agreeing to a shortened 104-day season, Commissioner Martin said the new option presented by his team would allow anglers in coastal waters to have a three at 18-inch size limit, Delaware Bayshore anglers in New Jersey would get three fish at 17 inches, while surfcasters at Island Beach State Park would see two at 16 inches.

“While we appreciate that the traditional approach is to focus on harvest reduction, our approach also considers the reduction of total fish mortality,” Martin said, later adding he’s looking forward to the ASFMC technical committee review this week and, hopefully, a final positive Commission decision. “We still have some steps to go through, but we’re hopeful that New Jersey’s economically vital recreational fishing industry will be saved this summer, while we continue to work with ASFMC and NOAA to protect our fluke stock,” Martin added.

As a virtual civil war began to brew over the weekend as anglers from both ends of the Garden State began digesting the newly presented Option Six, the appointees to the state’s Marine Fisheries Council prepare for a rather crowded community center in Avalon on Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m. The 11-person council is unique in state government in that it can veto marine fishery regulations proposed by the NJDEP Commissioner; along with shared authority, the Council also contributes to the preparation and revision of fishery management plans, holds public hearings on marine fishery issues, convenes species-related citizen panels as appropriate, and advises the commissioner on departmental policies and planning related to marine resources.

Back in 2013, ASMFC essentially took the democratic process away from New Jersey by creating the tri-state fluke region for the 2014 season. The NJDEP and Christie administration’s fight against the system may not have yielded the five fish at 18-inch size limit and 128-day season that was hoped for this year, but what may return is the ability to get back to a conservation equivalent approach where New Jersey controls its own destiny and manages season, size and bag limits while also meeting the unique needs of the fish and fishermen in the state.

Fishing websites and social media tools have been abuzz since last Thursday with harsh criticism of the NJDEP efforts with summer flounder in 2017, though sources say there is still some discussion about how to proceed with the latest option being deliberated by the ASMFC technical committee this week; as noted, while a 104-day fluke season in New Jersey is not unprecedented, a 19-inch size limit is. While increasing size limits along the Atlantic Coast has led to an overall increase in mortality, Commissioner Martin said that by keeping the size limit down to 18 inches for most New Jersey waters (16 inches at IBSP and 17 inches for the area west of the COLREGS on Delaware Bay), it actually decreases the mortality rate on throwbacks.

“When we achieve at least the 8% dead discards, there will be 400,000 fewer dead fish than in our 2016 quotas and about 250,000 fewer than ASMFC Option 5,” Martin told ASMFC last week, while referencing New York’s option for a three at 19-inch regional approach. “New Jersey’s option, with the significant reduction in the length of the season to 104 days, the 18-inch fish, and the bag limit of three, will cut the harvest by 23%... and with 8% dead discards, we reduce the harvest from 2016 by 30%.”

Despite the general nastiness of Internet discussion boards and Facebook spin over the weekend, New Jersey anglers still get another shot at speaking up on the 2017 summer flounder season as the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council convenes on Wednesday, May 17 at 4 p.m. at the Avalon Community Center.

It’s doubtful any “confederates” will show in Avalon, but you can expect a bit of differing opinion Wednesday between Yankees and Phillies supporters as to size of fish and start/end date of the 2017 season; credit NJDEP at least with providing the two sides with options for the first time in three years!

Get directions to Avalon Community Center, 2001 Avalon Road in Avalon, NJ.

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