SOMERS POINT - They went out with 32 anglers, caught 65 fluke and came home with no fish to eat.
That was the story on the party boat Duke o' Fluke on Wednesday morning. The four-hour excursion in the back bays between Ocean City and Longport produced one fish at 17.5 inches - but none that met the 18-inch minimum size requirement to become dinner. The pool money, $93, was given out using a numbers drawing since nobody on the boat had a keeper.
That's been the norm on the New Jersey coast this summer. A few more keepers are being caught in the ocean, but the ratio of throwbacks to keepers has been something like 40 to 1.
"We're catching more but keeping less. We see disappointment. A lot of people come with the hope of taking a fish home," said Duke o' Fluke Capt. Brook Koeneke.
Some are questioning whether the 18-inch size limit for fluke, also known as summer flounder, isn't a ruse to prevent anglers from keeping them. They have seen the size regulation creep up from 13 inches in 1986, to 14 inches in 1993, to 16.5 inches in 2006, to 17 inches in 2007 to 18 inches in 2009.
Retiree Tony Pagano, of Egg Harbor Township, goes out just about every day on the Duke o' Fluke, 70 trips so far this year, and he catches eight to 10 fluke a day. He has two keepers this year to show for it.
"Do they ever get to 18 inches? I don't think so. I don't believe it. I think the commercial fishing is killing them," Pagano said.
It's a popular discussion on the water. Commercial fishermen get to keep 14-inch fluke. Some people theorize the commercial fishermen take all the fluke before the fish can grow to the legal size for recreational anglers.
The East Coast fluke quota has been cut in recent years, although it is starting to rise again, and commercial fishermen face similar restrictions. Once the quota is set, anglers get 40 percent of the total and commercial netters get 60 percent. Quota cuts hurt both sides.
"The commercial guys have been hurt harder with the regulatory restrictions than we are," Koeneke said.
But the larger sizes are helping a federal mandate to rebuild fluke stocks by Jan. 1, 2013. The mandate began with a 1996 federal law called the Sustainable Fisheries Act. Biologists are telling anglers to stay the course and there will be big dividends in the future as fish grow to keeper size.
"It's not a bad thing. It's future fish. The bulk of these fish will move into the (keeper group) in a year or so. That's the plan," said Jessica Coakley, who coordinates the fluke plan for the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
The mortality for fluke caught and released is about 10 percent, so a few of them won't contribute to the future. But Coakley said the survivors will continue growing. She said it takes about four years for a flounder to grow to 18 inches, and a very large number were born in both 2008 and 2009.
Fluke figures from the National Marine Fisheries Service show huge spawning years in 2008 and 2009. An estimated 49 million fluke were born in 2008 over the East Coast range that runs from North Carolina to Canada, 17 percent higher than the yearly average, according to the NMFS data. In 2009, about 82 million fluke were born, nearly twice the normal rate. In 1988 only 13 million fluke were born, according to the fisheries service.
Anglers aboard the Duke o' Fluke are undoubtedly catching many of these 2008 and 2009 fish.
"It's frustrating for fishermen when they get one keeper and throw 15 back. The bulk of those 15 will move into the fishery in a year or so," Coakley said.
Some anglers aboard the Duke o' Fluke argue for lower size limits since there are more fish out there as the spawning stock climbs. John McMullen of West Chester, Pa., notes the limit used to be 14 inches before the federal government got heavily involved.
"Why don't they fix the economy instead of worrying about the fish?" McMullen said.
Linda Vanis, of Philadelphia, found out the bright side of the strict size limit as the 10-inch fluke she hooked got away before first mate Michael Mulkeen arrived to help her boat it.
"It wasn't big enough, so it doesn't matter," Mulkeen told her.
"Next year it will be bigger," Vanis replied.
A lot of anglers are willing to sacrifice this year for future years. Dom Lucisano, of Rochester, N.Y., said he has no problem throwing back fish less than 18 inches.
"A couple years from now there are going to be a lot of big flounder around," Lucisano said.
Young anglers seem especially unconcerned about keeping the fish. They just want to catch them. The Duke o' Fluke caters to parents and grandparents taking their children fishing.
"They're happy just catching them," said John Grega, of Ocean City, who brought his granddaughter Amanda Grega, 14, and her friend Kelly O'Hanlon, 15, of both of Easton, Pa.
Ryan Vetter, 12, of Langhorne, Pa., had a great time pulling in undersized fluke.
"I'm not much of a fish eater. The fun part is just catching fish," Vetter said.
Dick Herb, who runs a charter boat in Avalon and serves on the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council, said his customers are getting more keepers this year, with 83 percent of his trips producing at least one. He said many are just short.
"The 17 inchers are so thick it's unbelievable," Herb said.
Still, Herb questions the commercial harvest and wonders if anglers will ever really cash in.
"Everybody says the same thing every year, that all the 17 inchers should be 18 inches next year. Where did they go? Where are they? The size never catches up."
Some have suggested allowing one smaller fluke per angler per day. Recreational fluke catches are regulated by size but also by a bag limit and season. Each state picks a mix of the three to stay within its quota. In New Jersey the bag limit is six fish per angler per day and the season runs from May 29 through Sept. 6. Herb said a smaller fish would be nice but then "you could have a two-week season."
Tom Fote of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association said the size was raised to 18 inches to keep New Jersey within its quota. The proposed quota for 2011 will come out later this month, and if it increases then regulations could ease up.
"Do people want a lower size limit or a longer season? I'm not sure. I'm hoping we get an increase and it means a half-inch smaller size and an increased season," Fote said.
Koeneke isn't counting on regulatory relief. He is counting on the fish growing.
"There's more flounder out there than we've ever seen, but no increase in the number of keepers," Koeneke said. "I think they're going to go over 18 (inches). I think it's going to happen. I wish it would happen soon."
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