New Jersey’s summer flounder (fluke) season will remain the same in 2021 as it was in 2020, with the start date on May 22 and end date of September 19; the bag limit is three fish bag limit and minimum size is 18 inches.

For surfcasters at the state-managed beach at Island Beach State Park, it’s a two fish at 16-inch size limit, while those fishing the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay west of the COLREGS can once again take home three fish at 17 inches during the open season.

The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (NJMFC) officially voted to retain status quo fluke regulations at their March 4, 2021 meeting held via GoTo Webinar when it became apparent that some members of the public were unable to provide public comment during the actual meeting.  According to NJMFC member Bob Rush, the captain of Starfish boats out of Sea Isle City, he began to get a series of text messages and phone calls from members of the public who were in “listen only” mode on the GoTo Webinar and could not speak up during the public comment portion of the summer flounder discussion due to the limitation.

“My phone is blowing up right now,” Capt. Rush said during the meeting, adding “They’re in listen mode and can’t talk.”

As reported in the March edition of The Fisherman Magazine, this is the second NJMFC meeting in a row where the public’s ability to ask questions and provide comment was restricted due to technical limitations of the webinar platform.  In January, the council was forced to transfer to a different web platform in the middle of the meeting due to scheduling issues.

“This is getting ridiculous,” said NJMFC member Eleanor Bochenek.  “People at the last meeting got dropped off when we had to drop off, and they couldn’t get back on, Bochenek said, adding “We are losing public input, and we’re supposed to be serving the public.”

Capt. Rush made a motion to allow people on the phone who were restricted from providing comment to be able to participate in the dialogue “somehow, some way.”  However, Jeff Brust, chief of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries explained that only those members of the public who pre-registered for the meeting would be allowed to ask questions or provide comment via the GoTo Webinar system.  “The platform that we’re using right now doesn’t permit that,” Brust said, suggesting directly to Capt. Rush that members of the public restricted by the technology constraints should instead “have them all text you.”

Rush referred to “15 to 30 calls and text messages from people that can’t access our meeting.”

At issue was council deliberation over one of two possible fluke options for 2021, the status quo being the 2020 regulations, or option two which would delay the start of the season until May 28 with a season extending to September 28.  In response to a February 18 email sent by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to “listserv” members who have previously signed up for state updates, of 725 comments received by the state, 27% favored option one (status quo) while 73% were in favor of changing the regulations to the later start and end date.  This new method of targeting an email to “listserv” members to solicit comments from the public on specific management issues was implemented for the first time with the fluke options in 2021.

However, Brust said of the email survey, “when we do these it should not be considered a vote.”

“I’m just a little uncomfortable thinking that we didn’t hear from some of these smaller operators with these row boat liveries that need their little commercial entities that have a really short season,” said council member Kevin Wark of Barnegat Light, adding “I’d just like to hear from them and hear what they have to say.

Capt. Rush made a motion to postpone the fluke vote until April “when the public can have access to our meeting and be able to publicly speak.”  However, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will not allow another a more “user-friendly” and accommodating web platform to be used for fisheries meetings in the state during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  While Zoom has become one of the most popular communication platforms during the pandemic, Dave Golden, director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife said that’s not an option.

“We are not allowed to use Zoom,” Golden told council members, adding “that is not an approved platform for DEP.”

Council members brought up the fact that other state meetings are held via Zoom – most notably in the state Senate – while Jeff Kaelin explained how federal and regional fisheries meetings he attends regularly are held using platforms that do a better job of incorporating public comment.  “I think we do can a better job with the platform by the next meeting,” Kaelin said.

However, Ray Bukowski who serves as the DEP’s Assistant Commissioner of Natural and Historic Resources said switching the council hearing to another platform would take a month and it could impact the administrative process.  “Time is critical,” Bukowski said of the fluke vote.  “We would have to help process the results of the vote either way, and we need administrative processing time as well.”

“It’s unfortunate, but this is where we are,” Bukowski added.

“I feel like we’re dancing on the head of a pin,” said Council member Pat Donnelly.  “This can go on forever, if people are not available for the April meeting and they don’t feel they’re heard,” Donnelly said, adding “it’s one thing if more information was going to come, (if) something else was going to happen, but I’ll tell you I’m not in favor of the motion.”

Before taking a vote on the postponement motion, council members were reminded that sticking with status quo (option one) would require no change to administrative code because it was the same regulation as in 2020.  However, if members voted to postpone the vote until sometime in April, selection option two would require additional administrative processing prior to the May 28 kickoff.  As a result of the impending deadlines, NJFMC voted down the postponement motion by a 5-3 tally.

NJMFC next took up a vote to keep status quo summer flounder regulations in place for the 2021 season.  That vote was unanimously approved.

There were roughly 40 attendees logged in via the GoTo Webinar system when the meeting kicked off at 5:10 p.m., a total of about 60 logged in by 6:25 p.m.  The final vote on the 2021 fluke regulations came just a little after 8 p.m.  Council chairman and Cape May county charter captain Dick Herb noted that the March meeting was “usually the largest meeting of the year” and the ongoing meeting issues and lower than expected online turnout in the GoTo Webinar system on March 4 should be concerning to all council members.

One potential area of concern is the Open Public Meetings Act, popularly known as the “Sunshine Law,” which was enacted in 1976 (PL 1975, ch. 231) in response to growing public cynicism about politics and distrust of government.  The intent of the Sunshine Law was to have government meetings conducted in the open, and specifically states “all meetings of public bodies shall be open to the public at all times.”

While many coastal anglers expressed anger and frustration on Friday at what they saw as the less popular of two options being chosen, a larger question looms as to whether either of the past two NJMFC meetings were actually “open to the public at all times” and in compliance with the Sunshine Law.