Balancing commerce and nature along the Jersey Shore is never easy.

Commerce - especially and ironically the commercial-fishing industry and the marinas and bait-and-tackle shops that cater to recreational fishermen - is often at odds with efforts to enhance and maintain the coastal ecosystem.

It's hard, if not impossible, to make everyone happy.

But in the debate over rules to protect winter flounder, Ernie Utsch, co-owner of Utsch's Marina in Cape May Harbor, is right.

Utsch, other marina owners and the owner of the Lund's Fisheries commercial-fishing dock in Cape May Harbor are fighting a designation that makes the manmade harbor an "essential fish habitat" for winter flounder, a separate species from the better known summer flounder or fluke.

The New England Fishery Management Council sets winter-flounder rules from New England to the Mid-Atlantic. The rules prohibit dredging, some beach-replenishment work and other marine projects from Jan. 1 to May 31, when winter flounder are laying eggs on ocean and bay bottoms.

The only problem: That's the time of year when many boats are out of the water and it is most convenient to dredge - and no one has seen a winter flounder in Cape May Harbor in 40 years.

The fish, which are common a bit to the north in Atlantic and Ocean counties, apparently prefer sandy, grassy bottoms to the mud in Cape May Harbor.

The harbor is the southernmost edge of the essential fish habitat for winter flounder, and it's apparent that the New England Fishery Management Council has drawn its line in the wrong place.

"We've never caught a winter flounder. I've never seen one in my life," Utsch told Press staff writer Richard Degener.

Dredging in Cape May Harbor is critically important. The harbor is home to the second largest commercial fishing port on the East Coast as well as a number of whale-watching vessels and recreational boats. And so anything that interferes with needed dredging is a serious problem.

We support the winter-flounder rules north of Cape May Harbor. Winter-flounder stocks have been declining for decades, and the prohibition on winter dredging is important to increasing the winter-flounder population.

But not in Cape May Harbor, where there are no winter flounder. The New England Fishery Management Council should redraw its map.


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