On Tuesday, February 28, the news headline at The Fisherman Magazine’s homepage, A New Fisheries Sheriff Comes To Town, marked the arrival of newly confirmed Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.
Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing of things to come, less than 48 hours later the newly appointed Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, literally rode into Washington DC on the top of a horse while wearing a denim jacket and black cowboy hat.
Secretary Zinke was greeted by more than 350 federal employees as a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee from Montana’s Northern Cheyenne tribe played a veterans song on a hand drum. It wasn’t long before the new Secretary got to work, signing two orders to expand access and recognize the impact of sportsmen in the United States.
The first order will direct Interior agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service to identify areas where recreation and fishing can be expanded. Zinke will request input from the Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council, of which the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) is a key member, in this process.
The second order overturns a ban on lead fishing tackle and ammunition that the former Fish and Wildlife Service Director issued on January 19, the last day of the previous Administration. ASA President and CEO Mike Nussman along with a number of other outdoor recreation and conservation leaders met with Secretary Zinke to discuss how recreational opportunities can be expanded on public lands and waters and were present for the signings.
“The sportfishing community is relieved that the ban on fishing tackle has been rescinded,” Nussman said. “Frankly, it is refreshing to have a Cabinet Secretary from the sporting community setting policy for lands, water, wildlife and fisheries. He understands that conservation and public access are two cornerstones of sound fisheries and wildlife management.”
At the same time, New Jersey's governor Chris Christie and his staff went to work in formally requesting that the new U.S. Secretary of Commerce put a hold on recently adopted restrictions on recreational summer flounder fishing. NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin wrote that the restrictions will "put our recreational summer flounder industry in serious jeopardy."
As head of the Department of Commerce, Secretary Ross oversees management of fisheries through the agency’s Fisheries Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Last month, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (Commission) approved a 34 percent reduction in the state’s recreational quota for summer flounder which would place the deepest harvest restrictions and harshest limits on anglers in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut with a three fish at 19-inch size limit and 128 days of allowable fishing.
“Fortunately, the decisions made by the Commission as well as the Mid-Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council are subject to review by the Secretary of Commerce’s office, your department’s NOAA Fisheries office, the National Marine Fisheries Service,” Martin wrote in his letter to Secretary Ross. “This is required before the regulation is published in the Federal Register and becomes final.”
Because the Commission’s vote creating a three at 19-inch limit and mid-May opening for summer flounder in the tri-state region would still need the Secretary’s approval, Commissioner Martin is petitioning the Commerce Department to keep last year's regulations in place for another year.
“In the short term, New Jersey is requesting that you stop these new regulations from going into effect and that NOAA Fisheries maintain the status quo for the 2017 Recreational Harvest Limit for summer flounder,” Martin said in requesting to keep the 2016 limits in place for another year. “At the same time, we are requesting an immediate benchmark stock assessment for summer flounder be conducted,” he said.
In his first formal address to employees upon arrival at the Department of Commerce on March 1, Secretary Ross outlined a series of goals and initiatives for the agency moving forward, including “obtaining maximum sustainable yield for our fisheries.” According to the Recreational Fishing Alliance’s (RFA) Jim Donofrio, that statement alone is a game-changer.
"That’s the green light to hold the line on the bogus proposal we have in front of us right now and I think we’re going to achieve that goal, we’re probably going to be at five fish at 18, with the help of the Secretary and of course with our team here at New Jersey,” Donofrio told reporter Daniel Nee over the weekend at the Atlantic City Boat Show, praising the Christie administration for continuing the fight for state fishermen. “Our entire congressional delegation is backing us up on this, you know it’s a bipartisan issue and we’re really proud of what they’ve done.”
On whether or not the effort to keep the fluke restrictions in place for another year would be successful or not, Donofrio said “oh yeah, I’m confident.”
On the day that Ross was sworn as Secretary, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) sent a letter, signed by the majority of the New Jersey congressional delegation to Ross, expressing the need to delay any 2017 restrictions, while highlighting the overwhelmingly negative impact the new regulations would have on New Jersey shore communities.
Of course, keeping regulations the same in 2017 as in 2016 would benefit all fluke fishermen along the coast, especially those in Connecticut and New York who together with New Jersey would share in the deepest restrictions of all; thus far however, no other elected politicians from any of the nearby states have weighed in on the issue since Ross was confirmed, despite interest from the anglers themselves.
“The public comments in New York were pretty clear to the Commission back in January, that if we could get status quo for another year, that’s what we’d want, with scheduling of a new benchmark stock assessment,” said Capt. Joe Paradiso of Eastern Long Island Sportfishing Charters. “I would definitely support status quo over three at 19 inches, obviously.”
“I'm all for maintaining the New York 2016 regulations,” said Capt. Bob Schmitt of Sea Rogue Charters out of Freeport, NY. “Eighteen inches and a five fish bag limit was fair to all who target fluke; whether it be in the ocean or in the bay.”
John Mantione, a representative of the New York Fishing Tackle Trades Association said his group has always encouraged and supported consistency in regulations. “There are too many factors that are undecided at this point, so our view is to maintain status quo,” he said.
On the other hand, kayaker Joe Hosler of Delaware said he’s fine with the increase as proposed by the Commission. “The past two years the flounder fishing in Delaware sucked,” Hosler said, adding “a 16-inch fish isn't worth keeping anyway.”