On January 7 at the Stafford Township Municipal Building in Manahawkin, NJ, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) presented a set of new regulatory options for the 2016 summer flounder season, one which includes creating a specific New Jersey/Delaware Bay region.

The ASMFC’s Draft Addendum XXVII, which was approved by the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board in 2015, considers extending use of regional management approaches for the 2016 recreational summer flounder fishery; to address the inconsistency in summer flounder regulations that have existed in the Delaware Bay during the past few seasons.

“Technically speaking New Jersey would be its own region,” said Capt. Adam Nowalsky, who represents New Jersey on both the ASMFC and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) while also sitting on the ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Sea Bass Management Board. “All of Delaware would be the same, it’s New Jersey that would have the option that allows for a different regulations in the waters of New Jersey in Delaware Bay.”

When the so-called ‘adaptive regional approach’ to fluke management was instituted by the management bodies in 2014, saltwater anglers in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey were governed by the same five fish bag and 18-inch size limit, with a 128-day season which states had limited freedom to start and end a season based on needs. However, with Delaware getting slotted into a separate region with Maryland and Virginia, anglers there were allowed to fish on a 16-inch minimum size limit, with four fish per person and no closed season. The 2-inch disparity between anglers fishing on Delaware Bay has caused a lot of confusion on the fishing grounds, while also having an adverse impact on local economies.

"Battling the Delaware limit has been catastrophic,” said Capt. Mike Rothman of the Bonanza II in Fortescue while at the recent meeting in Manahawkin. “We just lost another head boat this year. We’re down to two," Rothman was quoted as saying by the Asbury Park Press.

Rothman and other Delaware bayshore business owners in South Jersey say that some customers are crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge in choosing to make the trip to Bowers Beach on the Delaware side to take advantage of the looser restrictions on the other side of the bay, while other longtime customers from the Philadelphia and Wilmington area are simply not coming to the Garden State at all to fish.

Capt. Nowalsky said it will be very difficult if not impossible for New Jersey to become perfectly aligned with Delaware on the bay waters this season in terms of size limit. “On paper, there are likely not enough fish available to allow New Jersey to go to a 16-inch size limit in Delaware Bay waters without negatively impacting other states,” he said.

“This regional option would allow New Jersey to be its own region,” said Paul Haertel of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association (JCAA) which supports the option. “We would still be required to have the same size and bag limits and same season length as the region to our north (New York and Connecticut). However, we would be allowed to have special regulations for Delaware Bay,” Haertel said, adding that this option would also allow New Jersey to continue its shore based enhanced fishing opportunity to keep two fluke, 16 inches or greater at Island Beach State Park and possibly expand this program to other areas as well.”

The recreational quota for summer flounder or fluke is being cut back to 5.42 million pounds in 2016, a 30% reduction from 2015. However, according to Capt. Nowalsky, because saltwater anglers fished below the allotted quota for 2015, it may be possible to have the same overall fluke regulations along the coast in 2016 as we had in 2015.

The ASMFC will meet the first week of February to consider all public comment before making its decision. If ASMFC allows that option to move forward, then the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council would officially set the state’s season, size and bag limit for 2016 at the March meeting.

“Credit for this has to be given to Brandon Muffley and the NJ Bureau of Marine Fisheries,” Capt. Nowalsky said. “He’s worked his butt off with other states’ commissioners to make this happen. The legwork that Brandon and his staff have done has really helped push this effort forward.”

The ASMFC Draft Addendum also proposes two options for the 2016 black sea bass recreational fishery (1) coast-wide measures or (2) the continued use of management measures by northern (Massachusetts – New Jersey) and southern regions (Delaware – North Carolina). The regional management approach has been used since 2011 and offers advantages over coast-wide regulations by addressing geographic differences in the stock (size, abundance and seasonality) while maintaining the consistent application of management measures by neighboring states. Either option forces anglers to take a 23% cut in sea bass quota which has anglers, organizations and business leaders incensed.

“It’s preposterous to think that we should absorb in the last three years an almost 50 percent quota reduction on a rebuilt fishery,” said Nick Cicero of the Folsom Corporation, while adding “especially in light of the evidence that sea bass are so rapidly expanding their range an in such unprecedented numbers as to threaten other neighboring ‎species.”

“To add further insult to the whole situation the decision makers are working with a dated stock assessment because the most recently completed effort was so poorly crafted it couldn’t pass peer review,” Cicero added.

In response, Cicero and others in attendance at the January 7th hearing in Manahawkin have encouraged New Jersey decision-makers to defy the National Marine Fisheries Service cutback options by going out of compliance.

“Anglers have to decide if it’s time to take a stand and say they’re not taking it anymore,” Nowalsky added, saying that he’s not sure how other states plan to react but feels that biologically speaking, the defiant approach won’t affect the health of the fishery. “It’s a paper exercise at this point, I don’t think anything we’re talking about with sea bass right now is a danger to the stock itself.”

Fishermen and other interested groups are encouraged to provide input on Draft Addendum XXVII by providing written comment. The Draft Addendum is available directly at ASMFC.org. Public comment will be accepted until 5 p.m. on January 21, 2016 and should be forwarded to Kirby Rootes-Murdy, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland St., Suite 200 A-N, Arlington, Virginia 22201; 703.842.0741 (fax) or at [email protected] (Subject line: Draft Addendum XXVII). For more information, please contact Kirby Rootes-Murdy at [email protected] or 703.842.0740.