TOMS RIVER — Anglers will get big increases in summer flounder and black sea bass catches this year under regulations approved Thursday by the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council.
The council, meeting here at the municipal building on Washington Street, approved adding five days to the summer flounder season while also reducing the minimum fish size from 18 inches to 17.5 inches.
This should produce more keepers this year and represents the first size limit reduction for summer flounder since 2007.
The bag limit, which is the number of fish that can be kept per angler per day, will drop from eight fish to five but few anglers catch that many anyway.
The season will run from May 5 through Sept. 28, or 147 days. In 2011 it ran from May 7 through Sept. 25, or 142 days.
Council also approved a plan to increase the black sea bass season by 42 days while retaining the 12.5 inches minimum fish size and the 25-fish bag limit.
The new season will run from May 19 through Oct. 14 and Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, a total of 210 days. Last year the season covered 168 days, from May 28 through Sept. 11 and Nov. 1 through Dec. 31.
The big surprise was the summer flounder vote as council hotly debated six different options before the 5-3 decision. All options liberalized the regulations as New Jersey was allowed to increase catches by 38 percent. Not only are flounder stocks doing well, but Councilman Patrick Donnelly said Garden State anglers only caught 65 percent of the 2011 quota.
Council always goes into the March meeting with a “preferred option” for flounder regulations recommended by a council committee on the fishery. It usually picks the preferred option.
Option No. 2, the preferred option, called for an 18-inch fish, a 170-day season from May 5 through Oct. 21, and an eight fish bag limit, but Option No. 5 was the one chosen.
Public comment was pretty even with 23 anglers picking Option 5 and 21 picking Option 2. The debate was whether more days fishing was better than boating more fish.
“My customers need a smaller fish. If we don’t bring fish in, people won’t come back. I need that 17 and one-half inch fish this year,” said Sea Isle City party boat captain Victor Hartley.
Brook Koeneke, captain of the Duke ‘O’ Fluke party boat out of Somers Point, pushed for the 18-inch fish. His concern is a smaller fish would result in catching over the quota and that could lead to penalties in 2013.
“As much as I’d love to tell my customers they can take a 17 and a half inch fish, I have to go with Option 2,” Koeneke said.
Some were upset an earlier proposal that had been talked about to allow one 17.5-inch flounder and seven 18-inch fish wasn’t on the table. This is a so-called “slot limit” and has been used in other fisheries before.
“This was proposed by the committee to liberalize the regulations somewhat. How did we get rid of that option?” asked Councilman Dick Herb.
Donnelly said the state Division of Fish and Game, which enforces fisheries laws, had a problem with it.
Chief Mark Chicketano, who heads the division’s Bureau of Law Enforcement, said one concern is it would be hard to enforce two different sizes when a number of anglers are fishing on the same boat.
“Simplicity is the key to these regulations. A slot limit on fish is hard to enforce,” Chicketano said.
Councilman Erling Berg made a motion for Option 5 and it passed in a 5-3 vote.
Council only had two options to choose from for black sea bass. One added 204 days while the other added 210 days. Council had already received word from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a compact that regulates fish in state waters, that it could allow an increase of up to 57 percent. It chose an option estimated to increase catches by 51 percent.
Anglers debated whether council should have liberalized the regulations even more. Historic catch data often determines quotas given to the states in future years. Some worried catching fewer fish in 2012 could reduce the quota in the future. Others worried if the regulations were too liberal too many fish would be caught and this could lead to reductions.
“This goes up 51 percent. If we go further we could get penalized in future years,” said Adam Nowalsky of the New Gretna-based Recreational Fishing Alliance.
Angers are reporting a huge number of black sea bass offshore this winter. One said the fish that often hangs around shipwrecks on the bottom is even higher in the water column.
“We’ve had sea bass hitting the line 60 feet off the bottom,” said Howard Bogan, a party boat owner from Brielle, Monmouth County.
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