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Frustrated fishermen attend the September 7 meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council following the Labor Day Weekend closure of fluke and sea bass, but find immediate answers hard to come by.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  September 8, 2017
What's typically sparsely attended this time of year, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council's September meeting in Stafford Township saw about 90 rather angry anglers and business owners show up looking for help following the Labor Day Weekend closure of black sea bass and summer flounder in the Garden State.

In what some expected could be an overflow turnout, only about 90 of the 108 available seats in the meeting room at the Stafford Township Municipal Building were filled for the September 7 meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council).

Although Council didn't have any pressing or emergency action on the agenda for their bimonthly September meeting, the Labor Day Weekend closure of black sea bass and fluke in the Garden State has justifiably angered the state's saltwater angling community, and prompted many to take the time to attend.

And while some expected to see a few fireworks from agitated members of the recreational community, there was only one outburst during the nearly 2-1/2-hour hearing that resulted in marine enforcement intervention and ejection; and overall, the initial debate turned into more of a strategy session as Council members and meeting attendees plotted a course of action for the coming months.

Adam Nowalsky, a longtime New Jersey charter boat captain who serves as one of New Jersey's two appointed members of the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and as legislative proxy for the state at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC) referred to the anger and frustration by saltwater anglers - resulting in turnout to what would normally be a sparsely attended meeting – as "long overdue."

"I have to encourage again, that what we did with summer flounder this year, drawing a line, which I understand some people feel was crossed, but the most important takeaway is that we broke ASMFC in terms of their stranglehold on states doing whatever they told them to do," Capt. Nowalsky said.

Capt. Nowalsky stressed the need for anglers tostart now in planning for a formalized protest at the ASMFC and MAFMC, particularly as it relates to the December 11-14 joint session of those management bodies in Annapolis, MD when recreational harvest limits for 2018 are set; he went on to call the current three-week early closure of fluke in New Jersey as of September 5 a virtual 'drop in the bucket' when compared to cuts on the horizon based on future recreational harvest limits and the early returns on the 2017 season tallies coming out of the NOAA Fisheries harvest surveys.

Several attendees including Capt. Victor Hartley of the Ocean City Fishing and Cruising Fleet spoke about chartering busses for anglers to travel to the ASMFC/MAFMC joint hearing in December.

A number of charter and party boat captains from throughout the state attended the Stafford Township hearing on Thursday afternoon, from some 63 miles south in Cape May to another 30 to 60 miles north out of Manasquan to the Atlantic Highlands. Capt. Eddie Yates of the Barnegat Light based Hunter and a representative of the United Boatmen of New Jersey which represents the state for-hire sector opened the public comment portion of the meeting by asking the Council to make a motion for an emergency opening of the black sea bass fishery.

However, Council chairman Dick Herb, a charter boat captain himself from Cape May, called it logistically impossible to get the state's black sea bass season open before the federal season closes on September 21, noting that 13 days is simply too little time given the bureaucratic challenge. "I wish there was a better process," Capt. Herb noted. "I would love to see this thing change."

Members of the public encouraged Council members to consider recommending that the state go out of compliance while taking its chance again with NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Commerce as was done with summer flounder. Herb explained how the state of New Jersey had better data on summer flounder to make a case with the Department of Commerce and Secretary Wilbur Ross in particular, and said the black sea bass situation was a different scenario.

"We're the first ones to reverse the decision of ASMFC, ever," Capt. Herb said of the summer flounder decision. Historically, Capt. Herb noted that the Commerce Department and its NOAA Fisheries folks typically gave in to ASMFC recommendations for non-compliance, slapping down states and their fishermen before acquiescing to the bureaucracy. "Guess what, they got slapped," Herb said of the decision to give New Jersey more autonomy on fluke.

As for the state of New Jersey thumbing its nose at ASMFC, MAFMC, NOAA Fisheries and the Commerce Department and leaving black sea bass open for the rest of the season without state enforcement, Captain Jason Snellbaker with the state's Bureau of Law Enforcement said that's simply not an option due to funding the state enforcement officers receive from the federal government and the requirements to enforce both state and federal regulations.

At a September meeting when there's typically not much on their agenda, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council handled a full caseload this month, and presented a fairly robust synopsis of fisheries management in terms of what a state can and cannot do on behalf of its fishermen. As several members in attendance stressed, including Capt. Nowalsky, real change, or what he called "sea change" will only come when New Jersey's representatives in Congress, both Representatives and members of the U.S. Senate, get involved in fixing the federal law.

Specifically, anglers and business owners who hope to see things change for the better in 2018 need to call their Members of Congress and ask for their support for the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, Senate Bill #1520 and House Bill #2023. At present, these bills in Congress to modernize fisheries management to better assist the saltwater anglers of New Jersey have zero support from any of the Congressional representatives in New Jersey; not one U.S. Senator nor a single member of the House has signed on.

The legislation also has its opposition, including the Marine Fish Conservation Network whose partner groups including the New Jersey based Anglers Conservation Network, the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association and the American Fly Tackle Trades Association.

Sign and send a letter to Congress in support of S1520/HR2023 to help modernize our federal fisheries law.

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