GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Commercial fishermen may get a 78.5 percent increase, from 20 million pounds to 35.7 million pounds, in the catch of spiny dogfish next year.
Although spiny dogfish command a low per-pound market price, the fishery is considered vitally important in New Jersey - which gets 12.5 percent of the East Coast catch - because it takes place in colder months when other fish are not around. Much of the population winters off the Mid-Atlantic coast as the sharks thrive in ocean water temperatures as low as 45 degrees.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, at a three-day meeting held this week at Seaview resort, recommended the increase. The potential increase still needs other approvals, including one from the National Marine Fisheries Service. It also is subject to a public comment period.
An initial motion to boost the catch to 30 million pounds failed in an 11-7 vote. The motion to go to 35.7 million pounds passed 16-0, with two members abstaining. A motion to increase the trip limit from 3,000 pounds to 4,000 pounds also was approved.
The council has representatives from a number of East Coast states, but the New Jersey delegation made the proposal after hearing from fishermen from Barnegat Light, Point Pleasant Beach, Cape May and other ports.
Much of the testimony concerned the small sharks taking over the marine ecosystem. Commercial and recreational fishermen have complained for years that spiny dogfish eat more valuable species while fouling nets and stealing bait off anglers' hooks. The smooth dogfish, the warm-water cousin of the spiny dogfish, also has been blamed for declines of some other valuable species such as weakfish.
"They're major predators like the coyotes out in the woods eating all the deer," said Chris Rainone, a Barnegat Light fisherman.
Jim Luvgren, who fishes for sharks out of Point Pleasant Beach, said the stomach contents of the spiny dogfish show they are eating fish the council has been trying to protect, such as butterfish. Luvgren, who said he has been fishing for more than 35 years, said the shark population is twice as large as it was before people fished for them and a lot of them are young, called puppies.
"I've never seen so many puppies as I've seen this year, inshore and offshore," Luvgren said.
The fishery took off in the 1990s as foreign markets were discovered. Spiny dogfish were sent to England for fish and chips and to Germany, where their smoked belly flaps are a delicacy. The hides were used for leather products while the liver oil and cartilage went to the supplement industry.
In 1996, more than 51 million pounds were harvested and suddenly stocks plummeted. Catches were limited to just 4 million pounds per year from 2000 to 2008, but increased each year since then as stocks - and complaints - increased. The catch was set at 12 million pounds in 2010 and then increased to 20 million pounds this year.
Jim Brindley, a Barnegat Light fisherman, wanted the largest quota possible.
"We've been overly conservative all these years. I'd rather take what I can get now. We need the extra revenue, and I'm tired of throwing them overboard," Brindley said.
Kevin Wark, a gill-net fisherman from Barnegat Light, said a dozen boats out of Viking Village fish for them but that a 4,000-pound limit per trip is needed to make it more profitable. He said 3,000 pounds earns only about $600, but half that is spent on fuel.
Wark said the species never was in trouble but the big females were fished out in the 1990s.
"There were others coming up behind them. We should go to 36 million pounds because we've been so conservative. We need this fishery. We don't need an ocean jammed full of dogfish working over the fluke, (black) sea bass and weakfish," he said.
James Armstrong, who coordinates the spiny dogfish regulations for the council, warned that there could be some lean years ahead because of poor spawning from 1997 to 2003. That led some on the council to push for a smaller quota.
"We expect the spawning stock biomass to go down even if you didn't fish," Armstrong said.
Red Munden, of North Carolina, noted his state's share, 16 percent of the quota, was harvested in just 24 days, but said he is concerned about the future.
"If we go up to 30 (million pounds), that's a 50 percent increase. My concern is what happens from 2013 to2020," Munden said.
"I share Red's concerns that 36 million might be too high," said Jack Travelstead, of Virginia, who offered the motion, later defeated, to go to 30 million pounds.
Laurie Nolan, of the New York delegation, which supported New Jersey's proposal, said stocks in so many fisheries have been rebuilt but fishermen do not see their quotas increased.
Peter Himchak, of New Jersey, made the motion to increase to 35.7 million pounds, and it was seconded by Erling Berg, of New Jersey. The two also made the motion to increase the trip limit to 4,000 pounds.
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