New Jersey regs for the 2023 season are not yet finalized – here’s a look at what we can expect.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) are still working out the final details, but it appears as if there should be no change in coastwide recreational catch limits for fluke in 2023, with a 10% cutback expected on porgy and black sea bass.
What this “status quo” mandates means to saltwater anglers in New Jersey in terms of how the 2023 summer flounder regulations will be implemented – and how a 10% reduction in scup and sea bass will be reflected in season, size and bag limit – could be finalized as early as March 2 when the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (NJMFC) meets in Stafford Township.
Does status quo mean New Jersey must have another “slot” regulation for fluking in 2023, or will a more standard 17-1/2-inch size limit, three fish bag be offered as a second choice? That may be up to the NJMFC and members of the public to decide together on March 2 in Manahawkin, or perhaps at a special meeting scheduled later in March or April at another location.
Since ASMFC indicates that the latest stock assessments for both porgy and sea bass shows the spawning stock biomass (SSB) for both species is roughly two times the regulatory target, confusion immediately sets in as to how we’re facing a 10% cutback on those two, healthy species of fish. As with anything related to fisheries management, the devil is in the details.
Harvest Control Rule
According to the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), there have been ongoing efforts to roll out new recreational management approaches based in part on the limitations of the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), the survey used to estimate recreational catch. MRIP data is collected as a survey, not a census, leading to inherent uncertainties that create challenges when used for fine scale quota management.
To account for these uncertainties, and their impacts on setting recreational bag, size and season, the MAFMC and the ASMFC jointly embarked on a recreational management reform initiative for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish. According to ASA, the recreational fishing industry trade association, the goals of recreational management reform are to provide stability in the recreational bag, size, and season limits; develop strategies to increase management flexibility; and align fishing access with availability and stock status.
Perhaps at the heart of this recreational reform initiative is something called the recreational harvest control rule. According to NOAA Fisheries, the proposed rule would allow managers to consider two factors to determine if management measures need to change, and if so, by how much – (1) biomass compared to the target, and (2) estimated recent recreational harvest compared to future harvest limits.
“The harvest control rule aims to bring more regulatory stability to recreational fishing by incorporating both stock status and the limitations of catch estimates when determining the direction and magnitude of a management change,” said ASA Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director Mike Waine, explaining how this new management program aims to provide greater stability and predictability in recreational measures from year-to-year while accounting for the limitations in recreational catch estimates from MRIP.
“Regulating recreational fisheries is largely about crafting regulations (bag, size and season limits) to achieve a specific catch level,” Waine noted, while adding “On paper, this is relatively easy to accomplish, but in reality, it is arguably the most challenging fishery management exercise in existence.” According to Waine, on paper the scientists are forced to make assumptions about how the anglers will behave in terms of participation and effort, explaining “largely those assumptions lack data, are oversimplified, and usually wrong.”
As a result of these management assumptions, the government folks in charge of creating fisheries models have been attempting to incorporate angler behavior as a factor when predicting catch, which Waine calls an improvement over previous methods. “However, those models are still under continuous development with results being relatively untested,” he added.
But the test is coming, with real-world implications. “Given the continued high levels of expected catch for scup and black sea bass, the current regulations are not projected to constrain catch to the expected range and therefore, following the harvest control rule (HCR), will be subject to a 10% reduction,” Waine noted, explaining how this is actually better than the previous methodology used for regulating recreational catch since it doesn’t consider an expected range of catch or stock status when adjusting measures.
“For example, the previous methodology would have required an approximate 35% reduction for scup and 45% reduction for black sea bass because it only used a point estimate of catch and did not consider the health of the stock when determining the magnitude and direction of its management change,” he said.
“ASA is still frustrated that the recreational sector is taking a 10% reduction on populations that are assessed at two times their biomass target, but the HCR has taken an important first step towards addressing this disconnect,” Waine added.
Better Than The Alternative
For saltwater anglers continually hoping for better news on the black sea bass front based on the health of the stock and size of the biomass, seeing more days potentially shaved off this season’s fishery is a bitter pill to swallow. But based on the alternative whereby a cutback of as much as 30 or 40% could’ve been implemented for 2023, the new HCR process should be far more palatable. “This process should mitigate those large swings,” said Capt. Adam Nowalsky who represents New Jersey on both the ASMFC and MAFMC.
“We haven’t changed our recreational fisheries management process in 15 to 20 years, but with the percentage reduction approach (harvest control rule), we have finally changed the process,” said Capt. Nowalsky while adding “what we are doing now is better than what we did last year, never mind 10 years ago.”
He cautioned saltwater anglers to consider what NOAA Fisheries had nearly done last year when pushing to close recreational fishing for porgies in federal waters entirely in 2022, a move that was only stymied when Atlantic Coast governors were able to get the Commerce Department to rescind the rule. “The boards (ASMFC and MAFMC) were pushing for lower reductions, the agency (NOAA) wanted higher. This year there was very little debate with the percent change approach,” Nowalsky added. “The goal here now is to continue addressing the measures to get them back to a place that makes more sense, but the process must be fixed first.”
One somewhat welcomed change to the fisheries management process beginning in 2023 is a modification to the commercial and recreational allocations for summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass in favor of the angling community. According to NOAA Fisheries, the original commercial and recreational allocations for all three species were established in the mid-1990s, based on historical proportions of landings (for summer flounder and black sea bass) and catch (for scup) from each sector.
However, using revised time series of catch and harvest estimates based on the new MRIP angler intercept methodology resulted in higher recreational catch estimates compared to previous estimates. In a statement on the adjusted allocations between the sectors, NOAA Fisheries said “The revised MRIP time series created a mismatch between the data that were used to set the allocations and the data currently used in management for setting catch limits.”
As a result of the new MRIP findings, MAFMC/ASMFC in late 2021 approved changes to the commercial and recreational allocations of summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass which are set to be in place this season. The fluke quota changes from a 60/40 split in favor of the commercial sector to a 55/45 commercial to recreational split.
In the porgy fishery, the commercial/recreational split goes from 78/22 to 65/35 in 2023, while the black sea bass fishery that favors the angling community goes from 51% recreational and 49% commercial to a 55/45 ratio in favor of the recreational community.
At the time of the 2021 vote however, the recreational fishing community had made a solid argument in terms of the transferal of quota to better mesh with the government’s own data. According to MRIP statistics out of NOAA Fisheries, the average “catch” from 2014 to 2018 shows the true proportional breakdown for fluke as being 60% recreational versus 40% commercial; the average landings for porgies come in at 44% recreational versus 56% for commercial between 2004 and 2018; while in terms of black sea bass the average 2009 to 2018 catch proportions show recreational fishermen with 76% of catch over the commercial sector’s 24%.
The Art Of Compromise
During the 2021 fisheries debate over quota allocation, Capt. Nowalsky attempted to broker a reasonable compromise for both the recreational and commercial sectors using combination of old data and new in offering a 50/50 split on fluke, a 63.5/36.5 commercial to recreational split for scup, and a 40.5/59.5 split commercial to recreational allocation for black sea bass. Regrettably, New York state fisheries chief Jim Gilmore offered up a secondary motion supported by other MAFMC members from New York that effectively killed Capt. Nowalsky’s compromise while leaving saltwater anglers several percentage points below the actual MRIP analysis.
In many ways, MRIP is a sword that cuts both ways. While commercial quota is monitored by a more exact measure of tabulating poundage offloaded and sold at the docks, recreational participation and harvest is monitored by random survey methodology. If MRIP for example shows that half of the fluke harvest every year comes from the recreational fishing community, it’s reasonable to assume we should get half of the allocation. Instead, fisheries managers devise recreational harvest limits based on anglers being able to use just 45% of that quota. And then each state is handed a value in which to devise a season, size and bag limit that NOAA Fisheries will approve or oppose based on whether or not those regulations would be expected to stay inside the box.
As per the latest stock assessment, NOAA Fisheries has determined that summer flounder is not overfished nor is it experiencing overfishing, with the stock biomass at approximately 86% of the target and currently in an increasing trend.
Which brings us back the double-edged sword of MRIP. There is a minor increase in the annual catch limit for summer flounder for the recreational sector in 2023, but because of the new HCR rollout, recreational bag, size and season limits are not expected to change. “The Monitoring Committee recommended a 10% increase in summer flounder. When we left the meeting we assumed we would have a 10% increase,” noted Tom Fote in the Jersey Coast Anglers Association (JCAA) newsletter for January. As the governor’s representative to the ASMFC, Fote said “By the time we were at the meeting the following week, we were at a 10% reduction,” he added.
Whether MRIP is the most accurate method of recreational data collection or not is highly debatable. But it’s really the only way that government officials assign and monitor recreational catch statistics, and thus we’re forced to live inside a box. In many ways, this recreational reform initiative is the only way to think outside of that box.
Perhaps even more simplistically, fisheries management has seemingly been an endless process of one argument that gives more opportunity, and another side which takes it away; in the case of fluke, the 10% swing either way leaves us with the same middle-of-the-road regulatory opportunities as we had in 2022.
Interestingly enough, recent statistics shared by Bureau of Marine Fisheries Chief Jeff Brust at the January 5th meeting of the NJMFC showed how the commercial fishing industry in New Jersey came up 10% short of their assigned quota for both summer flounder and black sea bass in 2022. MRIP or not, another few percentage points in the allocation debate clearly wouldn’t have hurt the commercial sector one bit, though it would’ve gone great lengths in reform our recreational fishery in 2023.