If federal fisheries managers got fan mail from some flounder these days, would it side with their catch limits or New Jersey’s defiant alternate rules?
State and local officials and the N.J. congressional delegation pushed hard against this year’s federal plan to reduce the catch of summer flounder, also called fluke, by 30 percent. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission wanted to require fish to be an inch bigger to be kept — 19 inches in the ocean and nearby waters and 18 inches in Delaware Bay.
Since last year’s limits were already tough on fishers and marine businesses, the plan prompted an uproar. Rep. Frank LoBiondo said “unelected bureaucrats in Washington use questionable methodologies and outdated science to cut us off at the knees.” He and fellow Rep. Frank Pallone introduced bipartisan legislation to prevent the new flounder quotas from taking effect.
The state Department of Environmental Protection also went all in, telling the U.S. secretary of commerce the new rules would destroy recreational flounder fishing in the state, an important part of its summer tourism appeal. It asked for a return to 2016 rules and a new full assessment of the flounder stock.
When federal fisheries managers didn’t yield to all of this pressure, the state took the highly unusual step of defying federal orders.
A day before the May 25 start of flounder season, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin announced new regulations from the state’s Marine Fisheries Council that would continue to allow anglers to keep 18-inch fish along the ocean and 17-inch Delaware Bay fish.
At the same time, the state is reducing the length of the flounder season to 104 days, down from the federal plan of 128 days, and matching the stricter limit of three kept fish per day.
The state says its approach “substantially achieves conservation equivalency” with the planned federal rules. On Thursday, the Atlantic fisheries commission rejected that, finding the state out of compliance with federal regulations. Next stops in the fight could include the National Marine Fisheries Service and ultimately U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.
DEP research has brought it to a view common among flounder fishermen with decades of experience. The state says its size limits would reduce the number of flounder killed when they are caught and discarded for being too small to keep.
N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife biologists also have found that the 19-inch requirement would result in excessive taking of breeding females, which account for 90 percent of flounder that size.
We find these arguments persuasive. They might explain the two main flounder problems that federal managers find puzzling, and seem to fit the habits and characteristics of fluke.
Federal biologists say the fishing mortality rate has steadily increased during the era of increasing flounder restrictions. At the same time, the number of young flounder is falling. The rules could be contributing to both.
Fluke are wide flat fish that spend a lot of time lying on the bottom. They eat small sea life and their jaws are weak for a fish their size compared to ordinary fish. Catching them often damages their jaws, so releasing ones that are too small results in the deaths of many anyway.
They’re also relatively easy to catch for anyone dragging baited hooks along the bottom from a boat. Anglers typically catch from several to a couple dozen or more trying to land the big female flounders that can be kept.
More research is needed on fishing mortality and vanishing young fish, to determine if the management approach that has proved effective for fish such as striped bass needs modification to work with flounder.
These are good reasons to think that New Jersey’s defiant approach is in fact the conservation equivalent to the tighter federal rules. We hope Secretary Ross and other federal officials think so too.