LOWER TOWNSHIP - Marina owners and commercial fishing docks in the Port of Cape May are banding together to fight a winter-time ban on dredging designed to protect a fish that doesn’t seem to even exist here.
“I’ve never seen a winter flounder here. I’ve tried. I went fishing for them three times and never caught one,” said Bob Lubberman, owner of a marina here at Schellenger’s Landing.
Lubberman used to catch winter flounder when he lived in Connecticut so he knows what they look like. He heard they used to be caught in nearby Jarvis Sound but that was years ago.
It’s much the same up and down a landing that includes numerous marinas, bait and tackle shops, whale-watching vessels, seafood restaurants and markets, and the second largest commercial fishing port on the East Coast.
There is no commercial fishery for winter flounder, also called blackback flounder, and there are no reports from saltwater anglers reeling them in, and yet a decision made two decades ago to declare the manmade Cape May Harbor an “essential fish habitat,” or EFH, for the species prevents dredging from Jan. 1 through May 31. The ban has also prevented some beach replenishment work in New Jersey and other marine projects this time of year.
“We’ve never caught a winter flounder. I’ve never seen one in my life,” said Ernie Utsch, who owns Utsch’s Marina with his brother Charlie.
Utsch said he knew a family of fishermen who regularly caught them from Stone Harbor north where the back-bays are deeper. They are also known to exist in back-bays in Atlantic and Ocean counties where there is deeper water and eel grass.
Jeff Reichle, who owns the commercial dock Lund’s Fisheries, said in his 41 years in business he has never seen a winter flounder caught here.
“Yet we’re mapped as an area winter flounder come and lay eggs. Therefore we can’t dredge in the winter and have to dredge when the boats are in the slips, which is a huge problem for us,” said Reichle.
That’s why Charlie Utsch was running his dredge all day on Tuesday and will run it all day on Wednesday. The boats are finally out of the water following the fall striped bass run but the dredging ban begins on Thursday.
Ernie Utsch said the ban ends right as the summer boating season kicks in.
“I’m trying to do commerce and business here and it just doesn’t work. You have to take the pilings out to dredge. We always used to dredge in January, February and March because there were no boats here,” said Utsch.
The New England Fishery Management Council manages the species and two decades ago mapped out EFH for the stocks that live in southern New England and Mid-Atlantic waters. Cape May Harbor, a manmade waterway created by coal-powered dredges early in 20th century, was somehow made the southernmost range of winter flounder breeding.
Delaware Bay is not EFH for the species possibly due to too much turbidity and sediment. The flounder come into estuaries in the winter and adhere clusters of eggs to the sea floor, but too much sediment can cover them and increase the time it takes eggs to hatch or cause egg failure.
“We are the southernmost section of the breeding area,” said Jeff Kaelin, who handles government relations for Lund’s Fisheries and also serves on the New England Council’s Habitat Committee.
Kaelin is working on getting the map redrawn to eliminate the harbor area and move the line north.
“I’m not sure how far north the line will be drawn. Egg Harbor has blackbacks. I think we have a very good opportunity to have it changed to take into account the manmade nature of Cape May Harbor and sedimentation. The fish have not shown up in surveys for a decade or more,” said Kaelin.
In spite of protests, agencies that regulate dredging including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife followed the lead of the New England Council and enforce the dredging ban.
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said all the states signed on to the winter flounder measures. Winter flounder stocks on the East Coast have been declining for decades, a problem blamed on overfishing, climate change, and habitat changes, including those caused by dredging.
New Jersey does have a fishery for them from March 1 through Dec. 31, allowing two fish per day at a minimum size of 12 inches.
The more popular flatfish in this area are summer founder, also known as fluke, which have eyes on the left side of their body. Winter flounder have both eyes on the right side.
Winter flounder are much smaller than summer flounder, topping out at about two pounds, and like very cold water. They have a protein in their blood that acts like antifreeze. They have a very small mouth and are caught with small hooks.
Lubberman used to spear them in Long Island Sound a quarter century ago and has one idea why there are not found here.
“In Connecticut they don’t like the gooey mud. They like sand. The marinas have gooey mud. It’s just not what they like,” said Lubberman.
He said moving the line makes sense.
“I have no doubt it will have no impact on the winter flounder population,” said Lubberman.
Charlie Utsch, meanwhile, will continue running the dredge up until the deadline. He worked the dredge back on forth on Tuesday, pumping a slurry mix of water and sediment to the marina’s two-acre dredge spoils site.