New Jersey officials asked a federal commission this week to consider an alternative set of flounder measures, just weeks before the opening of the fluke season.
Recreational fishing advocates and state leaders have been fighting for months to halt an approved plan to reduce this year’s summer flounder catch by about 34 percent in New Jersey.
On Wednesday, at a federal regulatory meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, the New Jersey delegation introduced a proposal that would limit fishermen to three fish at 18 inches in the Atlantic Ocean and three fish at 17 inches in the Delaware Bay for a 104-day season.
New Jersey’s representatives on the federal commission believe it’s preferable to regulations approved in February, which set limits at three fish at 19 inches in the ocean and three at 18 in the bay for a 128-day season.
The February plan would represent a 23 percent cut in the flounder harvest from last year, according to testimony by state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin at a meeting Thursday.
Federal experts say significant cuts are needed to curb a decline in the flounder population, which has been experiencing overfishing since 2008, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The February plan “will have a devastating impact on the state of New Jersey,” Martin said. “This is why we have worked hard to come up with an alternative.”
Martin said a recent study by Montclair State University indicated the initial regulations would cost the state’s economy as much as $750 million.
New Jersey’s proposed alternative will have to be reviewed by a pair of federal bodies. Those meetings could occur as early as next week.
If the proposal is accepted, opening day for flounder would be May 25 in New Jersey. With the original plan, the season would start May 21.
“I can live with it,” Brook Koeneke, owner and operator of the Duke o’ Fluke party boat in Somers Point, said of the proposal.
“I don’t like the idea of the opening day being so close to Memorial Day weekend,” he added. “It compresses two events into one.”
Fred Uhlman, manager of No Bones Bait & Tackle in Wildwood, said the alternative is the lesser of two evils. He said he’s frustrated with the regulatory process as a whole.
“They’re weaning us down,” he said. “They’re slowly killing the industry.”
Last year, fishermen could keep up to five fish at 18 inches in the ocean and four at 17 inches in the Delaware Bay.
Part of the state’s proposal is an information campaign to decrease the fishing mortality rate for fluke that are caught and released. Officials said the initiative would feature brochures and short videos explaining the proper way to handle a hooked flounder.
Martin said the state believes this program could reduce the death rate by at least 2 percent, which would bring the proposal’s total harvest reduction to 30 percent.
It’s unclear what could happen if the federal commission rejects New Jersey’s proposal.
On Thursday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission passed a motion that would deem the state out of compliance with federal regulations if no action is taken by May 21. The commission would send a letter to NOAA Fisheries, which could then move to impose restrictions on flounder fishing in New Jersey.
“We still have some steps to go through, but we’re hopeful that New Jersey’s economically vital recreational fishing industry will be saved this summer, while we continue to work with ASFMC and NOAA to protect our fluke stock,” Martin said in a statement Thursday afternoon.