Thursday, January 14, 2016


For a very long time, summer flounder management was a serious mess.  The biologists at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council were doing their job, and the fish were responding, but the burdens of recovery weren’t evenly shared.

At first, the same regulations were imposed coastwide, but that didn’t work very well.  Fish tended to be smaller at the southern end of their range, so folks in places such as Virginia and North Carolina had a harder time finding “keepers” than folks farther north.  And some of those northern states caught a lot more fluke than others, which means that a big harvest in a single state could force everyone to fish under more restrictive rules the next season.

To fix those problems, early on in the process, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission then tried allocating a defined part of the harvest to each of the states, and allowed each state to adopt its own regulations.  The only requirement was that such regulations have “conservation equivalency” to a hypothetical coastwide standard.

In theory, that sounded good, but in practice, things quickly fell apart.  A lot of that was due to the fact that state shares were set at the percentage of the recreational harvest each state supposedly landed in 1998.  Such allocations perpetuated the inequities of the old coastwide management system, while failing to provide for changes in the fishery caused by the recovery of the stock, shifts in local abundance or changes in angler participation.

Under the new system, New Jersey was awarded 39% of all recreational summer flounder landings, more than twice the fish given to the next two states in line, New York (17.5%) and Virginia (16.5%) combined.

All the while, an expanding summer flounder population was repopulating waters at the northern end of its historical range, with the larger and older members of that population seeming to move farther north and east every year.  As a result, when compared to its 1998 share of the catch, New Jersey was soon catching relatively fewer fish than its neighbors to the north, while New York was catching a much greater proportion of the total.

The result of this was that New Jersey anglers enjoyed the most relaxed regulations on the coast during most years, while New York anglers were burdened with the most restrictive.  The situation led to a lot of hard feelings, particularly in sections of the New York Bight where New York anglers were forced to release fish that their New Jersey counterparts, drifting less than 50 yards away, but on the other side of the state line, could legally toss into their coolers.

Eventually, the situation grew politically untenable and, aided by a surplus of summer flounder in southern waters, ASMFC replaced it with a regional management program in 2014, which imposed a consistent management regime on neighboring states.

Regional management has proved a success.  Going into the 2016 season, it appears that summer flounder anglers in the Connecticut/New York/New Jersey region will be enjoying stable regulations for the third consecutive year.  

However, those stable regulations required New Jersey anglers to accept some additional restrictions, in order to relieve a little of the burden placed on anglers in Connecticut and New York.  That didn’t go over very well.

In fact, Tom Fote, the governor’s appointee from New Jersey, tried to scuttle the whole process before it began, arguing at the February 2014 meeting of ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board that

“it is one of the most important fisheries in New Jersey…It is one of the largest fisheries in New Jersey.
“If the fish had moved off New York, there would be no problem with New Jersey catching less fish because we should have been under that [state allocation], but just the opposite happened.  We went over again in New Jersey.  If the regionalization would actually do something regionally or up and down the coast, it would be something to look at, but not the way it’s being proposed under this addendum.”
Apparently, even 39% of the harvest wasn’t enough for New Jersey; it still adopted regulations so lax that it kept exceeding its quota, and Fote had no intention of seeing the state have to surrender a single fish to its neighbors.  

Fortunately, the rest of the Management Board saw the merits in the regionalization proposal, and adopted by a healthy margin.  And, contrary to Fote’s assertion, the new approach did end up doing “something regionally,” by both adequately constraining everyone’s harvest and stabilizing regulations, which will now remain essentially unchanged for three consecutive years.

Even so, the folks down in New Jersey continued to rail against the regional management program, but this time, they took a new tack.  Fote had no problem seeing New York anglers severely disadvantaged compared to their counterparts in New Jersey.  But just a year later, he was howling at the inequity that forced New Jersey anglers to release fluke that could be kept in neighboring Delaware.

“I always think that I cannot get more outraged at members of the ASMFC Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Board.
“But they succeeded at their last meeting…Remember, that the problem in Delaware Bay was caused by the actions of this same board last year over the objections of New Jersey.  New Jersey was placed in a region with New York and Connecticut…New Jersey was forced into this regional district with no regard for problems that would be created for those who fish in Delaware Bay.   This caused New Jersey’s Delaware Bay fishermen to fish at 18 inches for a 128 day season.  At the same time the new regions allowed Delaware anglers to fish at 16 inches for a 365 day season.
“This had a devastating effect on the tackle stores, party and charter boat industry in 2015.  [Which was a pretty remarkable statement when it was made in March 2015, as the 2015 season had not yet even begun; perhaps Fote was trying out his hand at prophecy.]  Instead of coming to Fortescue or other New Jersey ports along Delaware Bay, the Pennsylvania anglers went to Delaware.  [emphasis added]”
The only problem is, there is no evidence that such switch to Delaware’s waters ever occurred.

The National Marine Fisheries Service provides statistics that estimate the number of trips made by summer flounder anglers in each state. And when you compare the number of trips made by summer flounder anglers in New Jersey and Delaware in 2013, before regional management went into effect, to the number made in 2014, after the regions were established, it is impossible to demonstrate that  New Jersey lost any angler trips to Delaware, particularly with respect to party boat anglers.

Even so, New Jersey managed to convince ASMFC’s Management Board to consider creating a special Delaware Bay region this year, which would include anglers in both states fishing in Delaware Bay, west of a line drawn through Cape May, New Jersey.  Regulations would be a compromise between those of the two states, with a 17 inch minimum size, 4-fish bag and 128 day season.  The rest of New Jersey would follow the same regulations as New York and Connecticut.

However, New Jersey would no longer combine its allocation of fish with those of Connecticut and New York; instead of 1,081,993 summer flounder being shared by anglers of the three states, New York and Connecticut would share a pool of 596,823 fish, while New Jersey would have its own allocation of 490,626 summer flounder.

There is an old tale of a Bedouin who had to camp out on a cold desert night.  The Bedouin’s tent was small, and his camel was forced to remain outside in the frigid air.  Soon, the camel stuck its nose into the tent, seeking a bit of warmth and the Bedouin, feeling sorry for his faithful mount, allowed it.  Soon, the camel’s neck and front legs slid under the canvas, and the Bedouin allowed that as well.  Not too much later, the entire camel ended up in the tent, while the Bedouin spent the rest of the night outside, nearly freezing to death in the process.

New Jersey’s proposal to set up a special Delaware Bay region is the management equivalent of the camel’s nose.  

Already, if such a region is ultimately established, New Jersey will again have its own allocation of summer flounder; landings in New York and Connecticut will be counted separately.  That would degrade the accuracy of landings estimates, which become less precise when applied to smaller regions, and make it more likely that regulations will change from year to year purely due to statistical errors.

In addition, it paves the way for New Jersey to eventually argue for its own regulations as well.  The state's representatives already claim that differing regulations between it and Delaware disadvantage New Jersey businesses.  Should the Delaware management region be established, the next logical step would be for New Jersey to argue that the entire state needs a single, smaller size limit because businesses in the rest of the state are put at an unfair disadvantage because they have to compete with those serving Delaware Bay.

Sound farfetched?  The Delaware Bay region isn’t even established yet, and such complaints are already beginning.  

“Not all industry members were on board [with the creation of the Delaware Bay region].  Robin Scott, owner of the family-owned Ray Scott’s Dock in Margate, said her business would stand to lose customers to Delaware Bay boats and tackle shops if the smaller fish limit is adopted.”
Ms. Scott is almost certainly not the only business owner to feel that way.

Thus, it is in the best interests of anglers in New York and Connecticut, and perhaps throughout southern New England, to keep the camel’s nose outside where it belongs, and not let it sneak into the tent.  If they fail to do so, there is a good chance that summer flounder management could again become the mess it was prior to 2014.  We'll all be back out in the cold.

ASMFC is taking comments on the proposal to create a Delaware Bay region through 5:00 pm on Wednesday, January 21.  Additional information, including information on where to send comments, may be found at

It would be a good idea if a lot of folks let ASMFC know that creating a special Delaware Bay region is not a good idea. 

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