Updates on striped bass, fluke, sea bass and cobia in 2021 from the NJ Marine Fisheries Council’s January 7 meeting.
During a tragic 24-hour stretch marked by violent political protest in our nation’s capital over an election some view as being mired in controversy and intrigue, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council) met via Zoom webinar and nearly voted on a new fishery regulation without providing any advance public notification, and no listing on the Council meeting agenda.
During their regular bimonthly meeting on January 7th that went on for more than 3 hours, Council members deliberated on a vote to change cobia regulations in the state of New Jersey for 2021. Considered a de minimis fishery by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which is defined as contributing “insignificantly to a coastwide conservation program required by a Fishery Management Plan or amendment,” New Jersey still must abide by new commercial and recreational measures meant to cut overall cobia harvest for 2021.
Two new cobia options were sprung upon members of the public and Council members last Thursday, one which would match Virginia’s regulations lowering the vessel limit to two fish while shortening the season by 30 days from the current measures while setting a 40-inch minimum size; the second “de minimis” option would cap both the angler and vessel limit at one fish with the minimum size limit dropped 3 inches to a 37-inch minimum with no seasonal closure in New Jersey.
Cobia may not be a target species for many New Jersey anglers – in fact, despite the state record cobia catch for Len Andalis on August 9, 2019 at McCries Shoal which appeared on the August 22, 2019 cover of The Fisherman Magazine, NOAA Fisheries’ recreational harvest data (MRIP) shows not one single cobia was caught in the Garden State in 2019. However, taking a vote on fisheries options without notifying the angling public still did not sit well with John Depersenaire from the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA).
“While this action item was not included on the agenda, the council was prepared to take action on these options,” Depersenaire said following the meeting. “As a member of the public, I was able to provide comments to the effect that the council should gather input from the recreational fishing community before approving measures. As a result, the Council voted to table action on cobia regulations until their March meeting,” he added.
During Thursday’s Council meeting, Division of Fish and Wildlife staff said it wouldn’t be possible to hold public hearings specifically on the subject of cobia, but Council members agreed to table the final vote until March to give members of the angling public time to weigh in on the two options.
“Personally, I saw enough difference between the two options that input from the public, particularly from the southern part of the state, was warranted before the Council approved an option,” Depersenaire said, recommending that anglers who have a preference between the two should contact Jeff Brust at the Bureau of Marine Fisheries at firstname.lastname@example.org with preferred choice.
FLUKE & SEA BASS “”STATUS QUO”
Council members also deliberated the somewhat moot topic of the black sea bass and summer flounder fisheries in New Jersey; as per ASMFC and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) there will be no change in terms of harvest numbers on either species in 2021, meaning that season, size and bag limits will remain “status quo” for another year. While the Council acknowledged that split geographic limits and slot options for fluke were all topics discussed in the past, another season will pass without any change to this iconic summer species.
“The one thing that doesn’t get quantified here is, how many fish are we killing to get one for the box,” said Council chair Dick Herb who said after spending 40 years in the charter business one of the biggest problems he found was when charters had to throw back dozens of fish without a keeper. “We need to do some honest studies on this,” Herb said, explaining how anglers are getting frustrated by the mortality on throwbacks over keepers, and the continual “status quo” response by ASMFC and MAFMC.
“People will only take much,” Herb offered.
Council members and Division staff alike agreed that it was time to begin gathering information from the public, especially given that there has been no change in fluke limits in the Garden State since 2018. “I do think it’s appropriate that we start now,” said marine bureau chief Brust, who added “I’m onboard with starting now. Let’s get the ball rolling for 2022.”
Capt. Bob Rush, a Council member who runs Starfish Boats out of Sea Isle City said the time to put a future fluke plan in motion is now. “We’ve had a lot of input, a lot of public input and a lot of advisory input,” Rush said, adding “We already have data and we already have input,” Rush said, explaining that the time has come to put a plan together.
“Right now, we don’t have any darts at all, no darts to throw at the board,” he added.
On the black sea bass front, Capt. Eddie Yates of the Susan Hudson said it’s way past time to see a bigger quota for recreational fishermen. “I’m tired of ASMFC and MAFMC dictating seasons to us,” Capt. Yates said, calling the continual status quo response by fisheries managers “unacceptable.”
STRIPED BASS & CIRCLE HOOKS
Coastal anglers are reminded that use of circle hooks when using natural baits for striped bass is now required. On behalf of RFA members, Depersenaire said his organization has been hit with a lot of questions from anglers in the Garden State in particular about the rules and regulations. “There is some gray area,” Depersenaire noted, adding for example the use of tube and worm, or whether or not angler can keep a striped bass while targeting another species when not rigged specifically for striped bass.
Joe Cimino, the Administrator for the state’s Marine Fisheries Administration seemed to agree. “Something this complex is going to generate questions,” Cimino said in reply to Depersenaire’s comment, and he explained this was something that the ASMFC is supposedly reviewing sometime in February. “Hopefully there will be some clarification at that board meeting,” Cimino said, adding “We will be revisit this in February.”
“As staff we will bring that back to the council,” Cimino added, while encouraging anglers to listen in to the ASMFC meeting.