Several months of fighting over catch restrictions for summer flounder, a.k.a. fluke, culminated earlier this month in a striking victory for New Jersey fishing interests and their representatives.
Federal regulators wanted to cut the catch 30 percent by increasing the size of keeper fish an inch (to 19 inches in the ocean and nearby waters, 18 in Delaware Bay), imposing a daily limit of three fish and setting a 128-day season.
Since January, fishing groups such as the Jersey Coast Anglers Association and federal representatives have pushed to avert the restrictions, at least until a fresh assessment of the flounder stock can be made.
Rep. Frank LoBiondo and fellow delegates from New Jersey in January sent the first of four letters against the restrictions to Obama administration Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. When that got nowhere, a letter went to her replacement in the Trump administration, Wilbur Ross … and then in April one to the chair of the House panel considering a LoBiondo-sponsored bill requiring a new stock assessment.
The N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, meanwhile, argued strongly against tightened federal rules, and then Commissioner Bob Martin made a bold decision. A day before fluke fishing season began, he defied the federal government and announced the state would follow rules it deemed just as effective — allowing the inch-smaller fish to be kept and keeping the limit of three, but shortening the season to 104 days.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which had set the rules based on the research of its biologists, rejected the state’s claim and recommended New Jersey be found out of compliance with federal law. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Commerce Department considered the matter, LoBiondo sent one more letter of appeal to Secretary Ross.
Six days later, Ross did something unique in the quarter century of Atlantic fisheries management — rejecting the commission’s recommendation and finding New Jersey’s rules to be in compliance with the flounder management plan. He said the DEP’s approach “will likely reduce total summer flounder mortality in New Jersey waters to a level consistent with the overall conservation objective.”
Fishermen rejoiced, knowing the size limit from last year would stand through the season’s end on Sept. 5. But so far there’s no assurance of a new stock assessment, let alone a change in how flounder are managed to reduce mortality of fish caught and released, or take pressure off the largest fish that are reproductive females.
In fact, the reprieve could be challenged as soon as tomorrow.
Chairman Douglas Grout said the decision by Ross left the fisheries commission “deeply concerned about the near-term impact on our ability to end overfishing on the summer flounder stock as well as the longer-term ability for the commission to effectively conserve numerous other Atlantic coastal shared resources.” The commission projected 93,800 more fluke would be caught under the New Jersey rules.
The fisheries commission is “reviewing its options in light of Secretary Ross’s action” and will discuss the matter with member states at a meeting Tuesday, Aug. 1.
Whatever the outcome of this back-and-forth battle over the flatfish, we hope it leads to a more effective conservation regime for this particular species.
Summer flounder are a great resource contributing food, fun and a significant segment of tourism. The sooner their numbers rebound, the happier everyone will be.