New Jersey’s summer flounder fishermen are facing a shorter season or throwing back more undersized fish based on an 8 percent cut next year. The cuts are not good news for a recreational fishing industry already hurt this summer by high fuel prices, a slow economy and lingering impacts of Hurricane Sandy.
The federal and state fishery councils that come up with annual quotas also are proposing cutbacks for scup and bluefish. The quota for black sea bass would stay the same.
Cuts in flounder, the most popular recreational catch in the region and a major seafood entree at area restaurants, could impact the tourism industry. Paul Thompson, a Cape May Court House party boat captain, who runs the boat Porgy IV, said such cuts particularly hurt the eight-hour trips.
Thompson said those taking four-hour trips mostly want to go on a boat ride and aren’t concerned about catching their dinner or stocking their freezer. The eight-hour trips traditionally draw what he called “subsistence fishermen” who want volume.
“Most can’t afford their own boats and can’t afford to charter a boat. As the size limits have gone up I’ve seen a decline in the subsistence fisherman. They can’t get enough keepers to justify the expense,” Thompson said.
The federal and state fishery councils that come up with annual quotas are recommending a reduction for the recreational fishery from 7.63 million pounds to 7.01 million pounds.
Commercial flounder fishermen, who land 60 percent of the quota to supply seafood markets and restaurants, will see a similar cut from 11.44 million pounds to 10.51 million pounds.
This will also hurt commercial docks at the Port of Cape May, the second-largest fishing port on the East Coast. Wayne Reichle of Lund’s Fisheries on Ocean Drive, said flounder quotas had been going up in recent years before a cut last year of 10 percent.
“Anytime you receive a cutback it hurts. It’s not going to be good for us by any means but we’ll have to bear with it and hope in future years we get better science and increases,” said Reichle.
The cutbacks were approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates migratory fish in state waters inside three miles, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which governs fish in federal waters outside three miles. The Mid-Atlantic Council still needs approvals from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council usually decides on flounder regulations at its March meeting, tweaking the minimum fish size, seasons or bag limits to meet the quota. “Seasons or inches, that’s what we’d have to do. I would guess the size would go back to 18 inches,” said Council Chairman Dick Herb.
The size limit was 18 inches up until 2012, when it was lowered to 17.5 inches. Marine biologists say it takes about four years for a flounder to reach 18 inches. The lower the size, the more fish are generally kept.
Brook Koeneke, captain of the Duke ‘o’ Fluke party boat out of Somers Point, recalls fighting against reducing the size limit to 17.5 inches.
“I said be careful what you wish for and my words are coming true. We dropped to 17.5 and it was good for customers and business. It created excitement. But look what’s happening now. It’s coming back to bite us,” said Koeneke.
Herb disagrees. He notes the cutbacks are for the entire East Coast so New Jersey landing a smaller fish did not have that much of an impact.
Besides, the final 2013 catch numbers are not even in yet for a season that ended Sept. 24. A clear picture of whether Garden State anglers overfished or underfished won’t be known until December when catches through October are reported.
Adam Nowalsky, of the New Gretna-based Recreational Fishing Alliance, said 2013 catch numbers could prevent the cutbacks. Some are speculating fewer fish were caught this year because of Sandy, high gas prices and the weather.
In December the ASMFC and Mid-Atlantic Council will also decide whether to allow states to devise their own flounder regulations. Toni Kerns of the ASMFC said other options are having all states adopt the same regulations or possibly a regional approach with several nearby states banding together. Kerns said states like New Jersey and New York, or Connecticut and New York, could have the same regulations since “they fish next to each other.”
The ASMFC wants the cuts partly because the spawning stock for flounder is below the target level of 137 million pounds.
The fish panels are also proposing a cutback in bluefish catches with a drop of more than 13 percent for the commercial sector and just over 3 percent for anglers. The new combined quota would be 21 million pounds.
Scup catches would drop from 31 million pounds to 29 million pounds, but neither commercial or recreational sectors harvested their scup limit last year. Black sea bass catches would remain the same at 2.26 million pounds.