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Striped Bass:Anatomy of a Near-Moratorium

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Anatomy of a near-moratorium

Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/17/04
By:John Geiser

Here's how we nearly lost our striped bass fishing, and what lies ahead
Striped bass fishermen who were involved in the management process this year look back with misgivings and look ahead with concern.
Tony Bogan, a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and a spokesman for the United Boatmen, will not deny that 2004 will go into the records as a trial for New Jersey bass fishermen.

"Twenty-twenty hindsight is great," he said. "We would have done a lot of things differently if we had known what we know now. As for the future, I don't have the numbers yet, but, supposedly, we blew away the mortality threshold in 2003, and, if the numbers hold, we'll face cutbacks for sure in 2005."

Bogan explained that New Jersey's problems, which culminated in being declared out of compliance Aug. 19 with Amendment VI of the Atlantic coastal striped bass management plan, began in 2002.

"We lost our producer state status when Amendment VI was passed in 2002," he said. "What we didn't know for months was that losing that status was not tied to our compliance with the management plan.

"If we understood that back in January or February this year, we could have had a set of options, decided on two fish at 28 inches, the coastal standard, or one fish at 24 to 28 and another at 34 and up or something else, and got it passed," he said.

"We could have pushed for options back then, but we thought we had a lot of time -- we were wrong -- and when we realized in May that we had to step up and get in compliance we were running out of time," he said.

Options, opposition
The state Marine Fisheries Council directed the state Division of Fish and Wildlife to come up with various management options to be presented to the public in three meetings. The options were unveiled May 25.
Two camps -- one principally in south Jersey and the other in central and north Jersey -- emerged, with the former supporting the option of one fish at 24 to less than 28 inches and a second fish at 34 inches or larger. The other camp wanted two fish at 28 inches and larger, the coastal standard for other states.

Public meetings were held June 1, 3 and 7, and on June 10, Assemblyman Bob Smith, D-Gloucester, introduced the south Jersey option in the form of a bill (A-3007). The Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved the measure June 14, and it was passed by the full Assembly 59-17 with three abstentions.

Emergency help
At this point the legislative process ground to a halt as the Senate recessed in June without the Environment Committee holding a hearing on the companion bill, and Aug. 19 the ASMFC voted New Jersey out of compliance.
The Secretary of the Department of Commerce is mandated by law to review New Jersey's noncompliance, and 30 days later shut down the fishery.

Fortunately for anglers, Sen. Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, and president of the Senate, called an emergency meeting of the Senate Environment Committee for 9:30 a.m. this Monday -- Sept. 20 -- the same day Sec. Donald Evans could announce closure of the fishery, and a meeting of the full Senate at noon to vote on the bill.

Gov. McGreevey could sign the bill into law quickly, and avoid a moratorium, even if Evans were inclined to act. However, sources close to the White House say the administration appreciates the fact that the New Jersey Senate was not in session and could not vote on the bill, and will not declare a moratorium, if it is evident New Jersey is acting in good faith.

Producer status removed
Bogan said the confusion surrounding New Jersey's striped bass fishery came to a head on June 9, 2003, when he confronted the striped bass management board of the ASMFC about its quiet decision in February to eliminate the designation of "producer areas" from Amendment VI.
New Jersey had been recognized as a producer state because it had striped bass reproduction in the Delaware River and the Hudson River, both waters adjoining the state. Some believe there is additional reproduction in the Great Egg Harbor River, the Mullica River and, possibly, the Navesink River.

This producer status enabled North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia to enjoy special consideration in management and creation of regulations, and gave them the ability to harvest fish under the coastal standard of 28 inches or above.

After producer status was eliminated from the plan, those three states were still guaranteed the ability to harvest smaller fish by the ASMFC because of their unique status.

The board had decided in 2002 to keep status quo in the recreational striped bass fishery through Amendment VI. At the same time it voted to return the commercial harvest to full historical levels that have been recognized as landings in the 1970s.

Thomas P. Fote, one of New Jersey's representatives on the ASMFC, said that as late as a meeting in December of 2002 he and Bruce L. Freeman, the division's representative to the ASMFC, were aware that commercial landings would be increased 43 percent, but thought it would be status quo for the recreational side.

Instead, at the February meeting the draft amendment to the plan was aired with all 144 references to producer areas removed, but with the exceptions for North Carolina's producing areas and the Chesapeake Bay harvesters.

When the ASMFC demanded that New Jersey give up its "slot" fish, many from the state thought this was tied to the loss of the producer status, and the argument continued through 2003, and into 2004.

The ASMFC's striped bass board did not push New Jersey in January and February of this year, but let it be known new rules would have to be written.

Bogan explained that gradually the message began to sink in that status quo was out, there was no link to producer status, and by April it was clear that New Jersey would have to act or be declared out of compliance.

An EEZ harvest
Now the problems facing New Jersey anglers are the threat of a cutback, possibly to be announced in November, and the opening of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to the harvest of striped bass.
Edward Cherry, chairman of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association's striped bass committee, said the JCAA has always opposed the opening of the EEZ to striped bass harvest, and in this they were supported by most anglers, and the majority of state representatives on the ASMFC.

"It is interesting that when the motion to open the EEZ was discussed under Amendment VI at the ASMFC, a majority of the states did not vote for the opening," he pointed out.

"It was the two federal agencies (National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) that cast the deciding votes," he said. Only four of the states and jurisdictions that have voting privileges voted to open it.

One source close to the process said anglers will have to mount massive opposition to the opening of the EEZ to prevent it.

"The way it looks, it's going to be open in one form or another," the source said.

Federal waters have been closed to striped bass harvest -- commercial and recreational -- for more than a decade, and draggers, particularly off North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia, have been frustrated by the prohibition.

Bogan said New Jersey may have some maneuvering room with the regulations because it has a lot of good striped bass data; it can continue to push its producer status; there is the bonus quota of 310,000 pounds, and the ASMFC still allows conservation equivalency.

"It's too early to tell," he said. "When we get the numbers, we'll know better. The coast may go to one fish, but with conservation equivalency, New Jersey might stay at two with a season or we may be able to divide the state up.

"Who knows? It's all speculation at this point; we'll just have to wait and see," he said.

Striped bass activists involved in the process this year have promised that when the numbers come out, they will not be waiting long.

Greg Hueth, a spokesman for the Shark River Surf Anglers, said thousands of anglers will be participating in the process this time around.

"We learned our lesson this year," he said. "It won't happen again."

CURRENT LAW: One fish 24 to 28 inches; one fish 28 inches or larger; third fish 24 inches or more permitted with a bonus tag.
PROPOSED LAW: One fish 24 to 28 inches; one fish 34 inches or larger. Bonus program in limbo, according to state Division of Fish and Wildlife.

[ 09-17-2004, 01:56 PM: Message edited by: NIGHTSTRIKES ]
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Just dandy that they couldn't post the correct current regs on the bonus's "third fish 28 inches or more permitted with a bonus tag", not 24 inches...
are we gonna have a striper season this year?? thanks
I don't get it. The majority of the people who attended the public hearing in Hackensack favored the slot. The few individuals who were representing themselves at the brick hearing favored the slot.

What is all this north jersey/south jersey stuff? Who is making this up?

Even if it was a north/south thing, isn't this the way the government is supposed to work? Lets say changes are due next year. Lets say north prefers a different option while south says it needs a smaller fish. So north, being more populous, gets to force what it wants on south?

That is one convoluted article if I ever saw one. I say "What????"
Thanks Steve. That was at least informative but my head is spinning too.
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