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While ASMFC is asking the Commerce Department to find New Jersey "out of compliance" on fluke in 2017, NJDEP says anglers and for-hire operators should keep on fishing until the Trump administration says otherwise!
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  June 1, 2017
Capt. Jesse Bloomquist of Flat Out Fishing in Margate found opening weekend keepers in New Jersey biting in less than 6 feet on the flats while fishing half-ounce bucktails with Gulp swimming mullet.

The $100,000 fluke question remains, is New Jersey officially out of compliance?

It would seem officially the answer is yes; but until the federal government makes it signed, sealed and “officially” delivered, New Jersey doesn’t really seem to care.

Unofficially speaking of course!

On June 1, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted to find the State of New Jersey out of compliance with mandatory management measures contained in Addendum XXVIII to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass.

Breaking down the legalese, the interstate fisheries commission will officially be notifying both the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior of its finding of New Jersey’s non-compliance, pursuant to provisions of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act of 1993 which is the federal law creating the commission and coordinating management of nearshore migratory fisheries along the U.S. Atlantic coast.

Ostensibly, it’s now up to the Trump administration and both departments of Interior and Commerce to decide how they’ll react to the ASFMC request; ASMFC has every authority to recommend “non-compliance” to the Secretaries, but it’s ultimately up to the Secretaries to officially find a state “out of compliance” and decide on whether or not follow-up action is required.

As important as this is for individual anglers to understand, for the for-hire captains with federal permits it’s absolutely critical knowing that New Jersey’s three fish at 18-inch size limit is still allowable until otherwise noted – and still backed by Governor Chris Christie and his staff!

During the waning days of the Obama administration, NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Commerce lowered the fluke quota for 2017 by roughly one-third; additionally, the fed required deeper cuts in the recreational sector due to harvest overage estimates compiled by way of recreational angler surveys (MRIP) resulting in a 40% reduction for 2017 that represented what would become the most restrictive measures in the history of fishery's management.

In response, ASFMC representatives from each of the Atlantic coastal states brokered a compromise amongst members and the outgoing Obama officials at NOAA to allow for what amounted to an estimated 30% reduction in recreational quota for summer flounder, further binding New Jersey to an inflexible 19-inch size, three fish bag and 128-day season within a tri-state region with New York and Connecticut.

For the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and the Christie Administration, forcing New Jersey to adopt a 19-inch size limit for the first time in state history was essentially a non-starter. As such, NJDEP biologists and its commissioner, Bob Martin, lobbied fellow ASMFC member states and representatives at NOAA fisheries on behalf of local fishermen. Regrettably, New Jersey’s efforts to retain status quo regulations until a new benchmark stock assessment was made available were not supported by fellow states, while the NJDEP’s official ASFMC appeal was all but eviscerated by fellow members of the interstate commission.

As per the Christie administration and NJDEP commissioner Martin in particular, the concept of a brokered and punitive season, size and bag for New Jersey without any consideration to discard mortality and the directed harvest of broodstock females was, and is, a fight worth waging.

“We’re disappointed the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission continues to myopically distance itself from sound fisheries management and advocates for a 19-inch size limit that kills more fish through dead discards than the actual harvesting of fluke. This would result in an overall higher mortality rate and be more detrimental to the fish stock that we are sworn to protect,” Martin said in response to the ASFMC’s decision.

“We stand by our regulations that meet the conservation equivalency of the Commission’s mandated management measures, while protecting a multi-billion dollar fishing industry in New Jersey,” he added.

At issue with New Jersey officials is the traditional allowance of “conservation equivalency” which provides state’s the right to provide alternative regulations which achieve the same quantified level of conservation. NJDEP officials presented a set of conservationally equivalent options which would allow for a three fluke at 18-inch size limit from May 25 through September 5, a 17-inch size limit for anglers on Delaware Bay and 16-inch size limit and two-fish per day limit for surfcasters at Island Beach State Park to assist with NJDEP summer flounder research efforts, which according to Commissioner Martin met the required reduction requirements, despite ASFMC protests.

“We are going forward with the regulations because we strongly believe that we have passed regulations that meet the conservation equivalency of the Commission’s proposed quota limits,” Martin said on May 24, one day before New Jersey opened its recreational summer flounder season. He added, “We have a good relationship with NOAA Fisheries and will continue to work with them on any issues relating to the summer flounder stock and recreational harvest limit.”

As for the ASMFC’s latest fit of rage against New Jersey defiance, Martin told anglers and industry folks alike not to worry, not yet anyway. “We look forward to presenting New Jersey’s management measures for summer flounder to the Secretary of Commerce and NOAA Fisheries,” he said on June 1.

Upon notification by ASMFC, the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior have 30 days to review the recommendation and determine appropriate action, which according to ASMFC “may include a federal moratorium on fishing for Summer Flounder in New Jersey’s state waters.”

But, ASFMC’s request could also fall on deaf ears. In other words, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does the ASMFC really make a sound?

Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), said for some ASFMC members, it’s a little like looking for the forest through all of the trees.

“This was the common-sense shot right over the bow of a broken, bureaucratic commission,” Donofrio said of New Jersey’s response to the ASFMC. “It’s funny to think that for 20 years the bureaucratic ASMFC decisions have been made to appease NOAA Fisheries, and now we’re suddenly looking at a Commerce Department that’s telling seasoned, career bureaucrats to finally smarten up.”

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