The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (NJMFC) met via webinar for 3 hours on September 10 with nine council members in attendance for a quorum. In kicking off the Thursday night webinar, NJMFC chairman Dick Herb of Cape May County said that while several previous vacancies had been filled, the NJMFC was still only 91% of capacity.
“We’re doing a council two-step, one step forward and one step back,” Herb said while announcing that recreational representative Sergio Radossi had stepped away from NJMFC citing a move to South Carolina. Currently, sportfish representatives on NJMFC include Capt. Herb, Capt. Bob Rush of Cape May County, and Pat Donnelly of Ocean County.
At a previous NJMFC meeting, members voted to have staffers from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (Division) look into extending fishing days related to lost trips at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the September 10 meeting it was announced that no action was taken by Division staff, even though Massachusetts as an example was able to adjust their sea bass season based on COVID-19 through a proposal to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC).
However, Joe Cimino, the Assistant Director for New Jersey’s Marine Fisheries Administration said the sea bass situation related to COVID-19 in New Jersey was unique. “New Jersey was in a very different position than Massachusetts who was completely closed for several weeks and is just asking for those amount of days back,” said Cimino, adding “We only had one day in the season that we were completely closed.”
“It’s true that the for-hire fleet was operating at reduced capacity, (but) we would’ve had to try and put in a proposal which somehow estimated how much harvest we took at reduced capacity and then try to claim a couple of days before they got their full capacity back,” Cimino said, adding “it would’ve been a very odd proposal, that even if we were able to pull it off it would’ve went to ASMFC very different than what Massachusetts was able to pull off which people supported because it was very clean.”
Division research scientist Jeff Brust said staff furloughs over the summer related to COVID-19 also impacted the ability for the Division to generate any type of comprehensive proposal. “It just didn’t happen. It’s something we wanted to follow up on, but the cards just weren’t on the table.”
Some NJFMC members were not happy with the response. “I understand that we were short-staffed, but what’s disappointing is that we didn’t try anything,” said Rush. “I guess I’m frustrated with everything that’s going on due to COVID like everybody else, but for us to not even make an attempt, I guess that’s what’s more disappointing.”
“I understand there was reduced capacity and there was some lost opportunity, but how would we quantify that and how many days could we possibly get,” Cimino replied.
Other NJFMC members including at-large member Eleanor Bochenek pointed out that such data does exist through the electronic vessel trip report (VTR) data kept by for-hire boats targeting sea bass outside of 3 miles. “For sea bass if they’re fishing in federal waters they have to have VTR data,” Bohchenek said.
“At that time of the year, we are fishing in federal waters,” Rush noted.
“It’s an argument,” Cimino replied, while questioning whether or how ASMFC’s technical committee (TC) would have responded. “Would the TC have signed off on that, I don’t know.”
Cimino did offer a glimmer of hope for sea bass anglers with slightly higher allowable catches on the horizon for sea bass and fluke, a possibility that could get fleshed out more this month when both the ASMFC and the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council meet respectively.
While for-hire fishing was completely shut down for the month of April during New Jersey’s one-month April window, Cimino also explained that the current overfished status of the tautog fishery precluded the state from being able to fight for lost blackfish days due to COVID-19.