Small Fluke

A new decision could mean two sizes of keeper fish in the Delaware Bay, as Delaware is grouped with Virginia and Maryland while New Jersey must agree on the same measurements as New York and Connecticut.

Dale Gerhard

New Jersey anglers face a 10 percent cutback in summer flounder catches this year, but there is a possibility of getting some unused allocation from a state not using its full share.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a compact of East Coast states that regulates migratory fish, is considering an addendum to the fishery management plan to allow sharing between states. Such a management technique has been used on commercial fisheries but never for the recreational sector, said Interstate Fisheries Management Plan Director Toni Kerns of the ASMFC.

“New Jersey could get extra fish from another state. It depends on whether the addendum passes,” said Kerns, noting the language is being worked out and there would be a public comment period before a vote.

The East Coast summer flounder catch is slated to be cut from 21.22 million pounds to 19.07 million pounds, with 60 percent going to the commercial industry and 40 percent to anglers following a formula that has been in place for years. New Jersey, the East Coast hotbed for the fishery, gets 39.2 percent of the recreational quota, more than 3.3 million pounds last year.

A cut of almost 340,000 pounds would force New Jersey to change its regulations that currently include a minimum size limit, 17.5 inches, a bag limit, five fish per angler per day, and a season that runs from May 5 through Sept. 28. The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council is expected to consider a number of options at a meeting next week.

“I’m disappointed. Now we’ll probably go back to an 18-inch fish, or 18.5 inches,” said Brook Koeneke, who captains the Somers Point party boat Duke o’ Fluke.

Last March New Jersey was allowed to increase its flounder catch by 38 percent, and the council lowered the size limit from 18 inches to 17.5 inches and increased the fishing season by five days. But in September new scientific data emerged that the spawning stock biomass, which represents the fish in reproductive age, was in decline. Kerns said past few years have not been good reproductive years for the popular flatfish also known as fluke.

Kerns said if New Jersey keeps the same regulations it had last year it is projected to exceed its new quota. She said one projection would have the state’s anglers catching 1.15 million fish, and the state is allowed 977,998 fish. This is based on an average fish caught weighing about three pounds.

Adam Nowalsky, of the New Gretna-based Recreational Fishing Alliance, said the news is not good but he questions recreational catch data compiled based on surveying less than one percent of anglers. Nowalsky also noted fishing efforts could be down this year as Hurricane Sandy damaged boats, marinas, boat ramps and summer housing anglers use.

“Half the houses on Mystic Island are uninhabited right now. How many of them will be fishing? North of Route 37 you have major infrastructure problems that could reduce fishing effort,” Nowalsky said.

Ed Yates, a party boat captain in Barnegat Light, said anglers got “a few crumbs last year” with a 17.5-inch fish and a longer season. He worries about cutting that back.

“I’m scared people will see 18 inches and not want to come out at all. Fluke is one of our No. 1 fisheries. It provides dollars for docks, tackle shops and head boats,” Yates said, adding that anglers also eat meals, pay tolls, buy souvenirs and make other purchases to boost the local economy and tax revenues.

If anglers are looking for something else to catch, it may not be black sea bass. The ASMFC has told the states from New Jersey through Massachusetts to cut their catch by 32 percent.

This cut comes as black sea bass is considered a “fully rebuilt” fishery with spawning stock at 102 percent of the target. The ASMFC is actually increasing the East Coast catch from 4.5 million pounds to 5.5 million pounds. The catch is divided with 51 percent going to anglers and 49 percent to the commercial industry.

The problem is New Jersey and other states north of Delaware caught much more than their share last year. The recreational catch in 2012 was supposed to be just over 2.25 million pounds and is projected at 3.2 million pounds, though data is still being collected. The regulations must be changed to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Changing those regulations is expected to cut catches by 32 percent.

Nowalsky said before the ASMFC increased the quota by 1 million pounds the reduction this year was at 52 percent for New Jersey.

“You can look at the optimistic side, 32 percent is better than 52 percent. It still stinks, especially for a rebuilt stock,” Nowalsky said.

Each state will be allowed to propose changes to reduce the catch. Yates said the regulators in New Jersey need to look at black sea bass with flounder and other species to make sure fishing seasons are always open for something.

“We can’t have downtime. It’s not just for me. We have marinas, bait and tackle shops and recreational fishermen to look out for,” Yates said.

Without the 1 million pounds added to the quota, Yates said the projected cuts “would have been devastating.”

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