Big Thanks To COVID - And DEP - For Another Fluke Fiasco - The Fisherman

Big Thanks To COVID – And DEP – For Another Fluke Fiasco

New Jersey’s summer flounder (fluke) season will remain the same in 2021 as it was in 2020, with the start date on May 22 and end date of September 19; the bag limit is three fish and minimum size is 18 inches.  For surfcasters at the state-managed beach at Island Beach State Park, it’s a two fish at 16-inch size limit, while those fishing the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay west of the COLREGS can once again take home three fish at 17 inches during the open season.

The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (NJMFC) officially voted to retain status quo fluke regulations at their March 4, 2021 meeting held via GoTo Webinar when it became apparent that some members of the public were unable to provide public comment due to technical limitations with the system.  As reported in the March edition of The Fisherman, members of the public were also restricted from commenting during the January meeting as well when NJFMC was forced to transfer to a different web platform in the middle of the meeting due to scheduling issues.

The Open Public Meetings Act – popularly known as the Sunshine Law – was enacted in 1976 to ensure that government meetings were conducted in the open.  That law specifically states “all meetings of public bodies shall be open to the public at all times.”

Many folks are happy with the May 22 start to summer flounder in New Jersey, roughly one-third of the state’s anglers according to recent survey data.  During the March 4 council meeting, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (NJDFW) presented findings from an online survey showing that of 725 comments received, 27% favored the “status quo” May 22 opener, whereas 73% preferred changing the regulations to the later start and end date.  Many anglers turned to social media in the days that followed the March 4 meeting wondering how council members could turn their back on the survey responses.

However, Jeff Brust, chief of the Bureau of Marine Fisheries said of the email survey, “when we do these it should not be considered a vote.”  With consideration to the fact that there were members of the public who were restricted from commenting due to the technological limitations of the GoTo Webinar application, a motion was offered by Capt. Bob Rush to postpone the fluke vote until April “when the public can have access to our meeting and be able to publicly speak.”

Regrettably, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) made it clear that it could not allow another a more “user-friendly” web platform to be used for fisheries meetings in the state during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  While Zoom has become one of the most popular communication platforms during the pandemic, Dave Golden, director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife said that’s not an option.  “We are not allowed to use Zoom,” Golden told council members, adding “that is not an approved platform for DEP.”

Ray Bukowski who serves as the DEP’s Assistant Commissioner of Natural and Historic Resources said switching the council hearing to another platform would take a month and it could impact the administrative process.  “Time is critical,” Bukowski said of the fluke vote.  “We would have to help process the results of the vote either way, and we need administrative processing time as well.”

Before taking a vote on postponement, council members were reminded that sticking with status quo (option one) would require no change to administrative code because it was the same regulation as in 2020.  However, if members voted to postpone the vote until sometime in April, selection of option two would require additional administrative processing prior to the May 28 kickoff.  As a result of the impending deadline and due to some council members either unable or unwilling to meet in April, NJFMC voted down the postponement motion by a 5-3 tally.  As a result, council voted unanimously to keep status quo regulations in place for the 2021 season.

In other news, NJMFC also voted unanimously in favor of a new cobia regulation which drops the size limit to 37 inches while capping both the angler and vessel limit to just one fish. Considered a de minimis fishery by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) defined as contributing “insignificantly to a coastwide conservation program required by a Fishery Management Plan or amendment,” New Jersey still must abide by new commercial and recreational measures meant to cut overall cobia harvest for 2021.