Thursday, May 11, 2017
NEW JERSEY FLUKE TANTRUM FLUSTERS ASMFC
Like a petulant child who employs every trick in the book to avoid eating his broccoli or going to bed at the appointed hour, the State of New Jersey will do everything that it possibly can to evade regulations that might hinder Garden State anglers’ ability to kill too many fish.
The state’s current effort to oppose regulations intended to halt the decline in the summer flounder population, and keep the stock from slipping beneath the overfishing threshold, is a clear case in point.
The ruckus began toward the end of 2016.
The 2016 update to the summer flounder stock assessment revealed that summer flounder recruitment had been below average for six consecutive years and that summer flounder abundance had fallen to just 58% of the target level, was dangerously close to the overfishing threshold and was still declining. In response, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the annual catch limit for summer flounder by 30%.
However, anglers didn’t know just how they would be affected until December, when a joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board would provide guidelines for 2017 regulations. At that meeting, the State of New York made a convincing argument that the Management Board should consider an option that would allow New Jersey (and New York and Connecticut) anglers to keep 3 fluke at least 19 inches long, with the same 128-day season that they had enjoyed in the previous two years.
That option was adopted at the Management Board’s February meeting, and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service in mid-April.
While it required area fishermen to give up 2 fish in their bag limit and raised the minimum size by an inch, it was far less restrictive than anything else that had been proposed. Most anglers, in just about any other state on the coast, would have been happy that the regulations wouldn’t be any worse.
In New Jersey, they threw a tantrum instead.
There were petitions. There were protests. There were legislators threatening to change federal law.
Not a single so-called leader of the local angling community had the guts to stand up and tell anglers the unvarnished truth: That recruitment has been down for the past six years, the population is in decline and action needs to be taken to prevent the stock from becoming overfished.
No one, including the state’s fishery managers, was willing to accept the state’s moral responsibility to help all of the other coastal states in their efforts to halt the population’s decline and begin building it back to sustainable levels.
Instead, they all whined, and if they stopped resembling a spoiled toddler at all, it was only to adopt the pose of a junior-high diva who would just die, and have her life ruined, if she had to abide by a 10:00 p.m. curfew on a summer Saturday night—except, in this case, the divas of New Jersey’s angling world emoted that
“Our industry is just killed,”
“a de facto moratorium on recreational summer flounder fishing in [the] state.”
The State of New Jersey filed a formal appeal of ASMFC’s decision, arguing that the state shouldn’t have to be bound by the regulations that the Management Board adopted in February, alleged that the Management Board didn’t consider the resulting economic hardship, questionable science and, yes, printing errors in the draft document that went out to public hearing when it made its decision. The first two issues were dismissed out of hand—they had already been discussed in great detail by the Management Board—but the printing error may eventually be given a brief hearing.
The Garden State whiners also maintained that they shouldn’t be bound by the same rules as New York and Connecticut, but instead should be able to maintain last year’s 18-inch size limit, in exchange for losing three weeks of the season toward the end of September, when fishing effort will have already declined substantially.
Such a request would have been impossible under the regional management system that existed in 2014 and 2015, which included New Jersey in a region that included the other two states. However, in 2016, managers made the mistake of allowing New Jersey to become its own region, so that its anglers fishing Delaware Bay could enjoy regulations less restrictive than the rest of the coast. Even though the 2016 action compelled the rest of the state to adopt regulations similar to those in Connecticut and New York, it created a vulnerability that could be exploited by New Jersey at this week’s meeting.
Originally, the Management Board stood firm, and rejected New Jersey’s attempt to cadge special treatment from ASMFC. However, after that first refusal, the folks from the Jersey shore bawled, and held their breath, and kicked their feet for fully three hours, and finally wore down the tired, hard-working grownups in the room. They agreed to send the New Jersey proposal to the Summer Flounder Technical Committee for review.
So it looks like the fluke debate will go on. New York and Connecticut will open their seasons next week, having responsibly adopted the regulations that ASMFC approved in February. On the other hand, New Jersey’s irresponsibility may well be rewarded, and when its season opens on May 25, it is not unlikely that anglers there will still be able to keep 18-inch fish.
There is still hope that mature deliberation will ultimately prevail, and that the Technical Committee and/or the Management Board will not allow New Jersey to get its way and upend the regional structure that has helped to create equitable and consistent regulations in the tri-state area. On the morning of May 11, ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Policy Board voted to declare New Jersey out of compliance with the Commission’s management plan, an action which could lead to a complete closure of the state’s fishery, should the Management Board ultimately disapprove the 18-inch size limit and shortened season.
However, for the moment, the whiners seem to have won.
They now stand a good chance of escaping any obligation to share the burden of rebuilding the fluke population with Connecticut, New York and the rest of the states. New Jersey anglers may once again enjoy regulations less restrictive than those imposed on all of the other anglers in the tri-state region.
And it’s largely the other states’ fault.
Regardless of the species involved, New Jersey always tries to manipulate the numbers, and its fellow ASMFC members, in a way that allows them to kill more and smaller fish than their neighboring states.
We saw that after Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan was adopted in 2014. New Jersey convinced ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board to allow the state to employ “conservation equivalency” to adopt a 2-fish bag limit, rather than the one-fish bag adopted by all but one of the other states, in exchange for adopting specific slot limits, rather than a single 28-inch minimum size, for each of the striped bass taken.
As a result, New Jersey was the only coastal state that failed to achieve the required 25% reduction in landings in 2015, but no effort was made to hold it accountable for its excessive landings.
Its more recent, successful effort to leave the tri-state summer flounder management region that it shared with New York and Connecticut, in order to win relaxed regulations in Delaware Bay, was already described above.
Now, instead of being grateful that ASMFC was willing to help out Delaware Bay anglers, New Jersey is taking advantage of its status as a separate region to demand even more special treatment.
It’s well past time for a little tough love.
It’s time for the other states to put their foot down, and insist that New Jersey play by the same rules that apply to everyone else.
And if New Jersey throws a tantrum when told to behave, it’s time to give the state a time out, by enforcing the non-compliance finding and imposing a 0-fish bag and 0-day season, until the folks there finally learn that if they want to enjoy the right to exploit fisheries resources, they need to accept the accompanying responsibilities.
If they’re not willing to do their part to clean up the mess that they helped to create, they should be banned from the playground.
Spoiled children always want more. If New Jersey gets its 18-inch fluke limit this year, they won’t just say thanks and play nice. Next year, they’ll demand something else, most likely the pre-2014 allocation scheme that gave the state 39% of all the recreationally-caught fluke on the coast. If they don’t insist on that—at least not right away—it will be something else, because brats keep on whining until adults say “No!” and stand firm.
That’s something that ASMFC should have done long ago.