Tough Times for Recreational Anglers in New Jersey

by John Toth
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association September 2019 Newsletter)

As I write this column (August 9, 2019) recreational anglers, tackle shops, party and charter boats are having a very tough time on the fishing scene. To put this in a better perspective, here is an update on what we can fish for:

Fluke - we can catch 3 fluke with a minimum size of 18 inches until September 21. Since the season for fluke opened on May 24th, these fish seem to have “lockjaw”. Party and even charter boats have been having a rough time to manage a keeper on their trips. On July 16th, a charter boat with approximately 30 anglers did not even land one keeper fluke! Fishing friends who I know that are “sharpies” are having a tough time finding fluke and even catching their limit.

Why is this happening? Nobody seems to know for sure! A possible reason from what I have heard is that the water temperature on the surface is warm to 80 degrees while the temperature on the bottom is much cooler taking the fluke off their bite. Anglers are coming up with ling, which is a cold water fish, instead of fluke. Whatever the reason, the fluke season so far has been bad and anglers are not going on fishing trips as they usually do and the tackle shops and party/charter boats are taking a financial hit because of this.

Bluefish - Like last year they come in with the big bruisers up to 20 lbs. and then seem to disappear. I receive emails from party boats that target bluefish and they advertise the sea bass fishing is great, but fail to also say that you can keep only 2 of them! To financially survive, they are also advertising whale watching, or a combo afternoon fishing trip ending with a fireworks display. Can you blame them for trying to stay in business? Why the bluefish are not around as they used to be is another question that nobody seems to know the answer.

Striped Bass - Like bluefish, they come in with a bang and then seem to move off to locations unknown. They used to stay in one location for a while and provide good fishing. Why the shift from their usual fishing grounds is another unanswered question. However, the reality is that their numbers seem to be in decline and we are facing possible severe restrictions on them for 2020.

Blackfish - Season closed from May 1 to July 31. Only 1 fish (15 inches minimum) can be caught from August 1st to November 15th; then 5 fish from November 16th to December 31st.

Winter Flounder - 2 fish at 12 inch minimum from 3/1 to 12/ 31.

Black Sea Bass - I save the best for last! From July 1st to August 31st – 2 fish at 12 ½ inches. Season closed through September and opens October 8th to October 31st at 13 inches with a 10 fish limit. Then from November 1st to December 31st at 13 inches with a 15 bag limit.

In addition to the confusing seasons that sea bass are either closed or open, sea bass stocks are NOT in trouble and their stocks are even up by 230% according to fishing management. Yet these fishing regulators take a cautionary approach to sea bass since they are unsure of the status of this stock and continue to cut back on the quota of sea bass we can fish for. If we were able to utilize this fishery as it should be (say up to 10 sea bass or more during this summer season), it would give anglers something to fish and bring them back to the party/charter boats and help to save this industry from closing down as many have already done. If the fluke or bluefish are off their bite, captains could go after 10 sea bass or more to at least have anglers go home with something in their coolers and save the day.

This same sea bass issue was brought up at a Regional Roundtable meeting with John Bullard, Regional Director of NOAA, at an April 3, 2017 meeting with about 30 representatives from the recreational community (my summary of this meeting was in the January 2019 JCAA newsletter). Mr. Bullard was not a friend of the recreational community and he did not follow up on any issues that were raised at this meeting. Mike Pentony, who replaced Bullard, was at a JCAA function during November 2018. After hearing his positive presentation on recreational fishing at the JCAA dinner, I decided to write a letter to him on JCAA letterhead that was sent on December 3, 2018. This letter requested another Roundtable meeting so that we could discuss this sea bass issue and others that are important to us. As of this August 9th date, I have not received any response from him or his office! Over six months have passed and not even a short response saying that we are in receipt of your letter and will get back to you! This lack of any response does not give the recreational fishing industry a vote of confidence in his addressing the problems that I have indicated above.

While we are severely restricted on how many sea bass we can keep, the overabundance of sea bass is gobbling up young fluke and baby lobsters that are decimating these stocks and others. The protection of spiny dogfish that has led to their population explosion and is another area of concern since these sharks are voracious in eating the same species as sea bass and more. Fishing management focuses on one species at a time when they should be focusing on all species of fish since they are connected together and interact with each other. When one fishing season closes, there should be another one that is open so that we have something to fish. These issues would have been raised if we had the Roundtable that I was seeking to have with Mr. Pentony.

Hopefully, things will change and we can have an improvement in the way our fisheries are managed. But until that change happens, our fishing industry is dying a slow death by mismanagement by our fishing managers, especially at the federal level.

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