Panel cuts flounder quota for next year
By MICHAEL PRITCHARD Staff Writer, (609) 272-7256
Published: Wednesday, December 7, 2005
Updated: Wednesday, December 7, 2005
ATLANTIC CITY-A reduction of the quota of summer flounder that can be caught off the Atlantic Coast could hurt New Jersey's commercial fishermen, but recreational fishermen - who did not catch their entire assigned quota this year - should see little difference in limits.
That was the conclusion of state delegates to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on Tuesday after the federal government was able to convince the commission to cut the Atlantic flounder take to 23.59 million pounds, down from 30 million pounds last year.
The entire quota is split among 10 Atlantic seaboard states, which can set their own size and bag limits for recreational fishing. Since recreational fisherman did not catch the full quota assigned to New Jersey last year, it is unlikely current limits will need to be changed, officials said.
Commercial fishermen, however, almost always catch their entire quota and will see a reduction in the amount they can catch.
The commission voted to reduce the quota Tuesday despite objections from several fishing groups who wanted to see a higher quota of 26 million pounds that would stay constant for at least three years. The commission's vote, however, only sets the quota for next year.
Pat Kurkel, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told the commission that the cut was needed because flounder stocks are not recovering at the pace expected and the move has to be made to meet target levels for flounder set for 2010.
"We have a fishery that has been overfished in the past and it is being overfished again," she said. "The amount of fish is lower than we had thought and the amount of fish mortality is higher than we thought. This move is difficult, but it needs to be made."
Kurkel said the service might be forced to close the fisheries after 23.59 million pounds was reached to protect the flounder even if the commission set a higher quota.
Many members of the commission, which includes 10 Atlantic states, felt that the government's stance undercut the commission's authority.
"It makes you wonder what we are here for," said Ed Goldman, of Absecon, a New Jersey delegate to the commission. "I mean we just voted for a low this quota because they hope we will be able to set a higher quota in 2007. Well, I hope there is more fish next year too, but there are no guarantees."
The New Jersey delegates supported a plan that would have set the quota at 26 million pounds for the next three years. That plan, called "constant harvest," was projected to allow the flounder stock to meet approved levels (about 204 million pounds) by 2010.
Not only would that plan set a slightly higher quota this year, it would also provide consistency, officials said.
"The thing we are forgetting here is that we serve a lot of people trying to survive in this industry," said Bruce Freeman, of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife and another state delegate. "And the biggest complaint I get from fishermen is that they don't understand what we are doing here. One year we greatly increase the catch. The next year we drastically cut the catch. They can't operate like that. They want to know what the catch will be so they can plan."
But several other commissioners said they did not want to set a quota for the future that could be lower than necessary.
"The problem with the constant harvest approach is that you get a short-term benefit, but you sacrifice any long-term benefits there might be," Kurkel said.
Still, recent studies have shown that the summer flounder stock is not recovering at an expected rate. Current estimates are that the entire amount of flounder off the coast, or biomass, is 121 million pounds, significantly lower than the target of 204 million pounds. The commission had hoped to set a quota of 33 million pounds for 2006 before the new estimates came out.
The commission will now move to discussions on how to achieve the quota, which includes setting catch and size limits, which are then approved by the states. Those figures are tied into how much of the quota is allocated to each state, which is then divided into 60 percent for commercial fisherman and 40 percent for recreational fisherman.
In New Jersey, preliminary estimates show that recreational fishermen are not likely to be affected by the cut.
"Recreational fisherman didn't come close to the quota last year," Goldman said. "Nothing is guaranteed of course, but they shouldn't see much of a change in limits. But now we are going to have to figure out how this will affect commercial fisherman. Those numbers aren't in yet, but I have a feeling they're going to take a hit."
For the fisherman in attendance, of whom many had traveled to be there, the commission meeting proved to be an exercise in frustration.
"Basically the government just jammed what they wanted down the commission's throat," said Bruce Smith of the Jersey Coast Angler's Association, based in Toms River. "And the commission just rolled over. New Jersey fishermen probably aren't going to be hit that badly, but I know a lot of fishermen are going to be hurt by this."