Recreational Fishing is in a Slow Death Spiral in New Jersey

by John Toth
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association February 2020 Newsletter)

The cover of our JCAA January 2020 newsletter had a headline “Bluefish Disaster NMFS Destroying our Fisheries Again”.

This headline says it all! At their joint meeting in December, the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAMFC) voted for a coastwide standard of only a 3-fish bag limit for private anglers and a 5-fish bag limit for charter and party boats for bluefish. Not only did they vote in favor of a draconian measure that drops the 15-bag limit to these lower limits, but they also created a rift between the for-hire sector and private anglers due to separate quotas for each of them. This will inevitably lead to disputes over the quotas given to them and fighting amongst themselves. This is a bad precedent and may spill over to other species like fluke and make fishery management all the more difficult than it presently is. Additionally, the three-fish limit would hurt kids who like to catch snappers. Catching snappers leads many kids to become anglers in later years. Also, this affects fluke fishermen who want to use snappers for bait and shark fishermen who need to stock up their freezers with bait.

These decisions by the ASMFC and the MAMFC were made without any input from recreational anglers! Had we been able to comment, we would have asked why the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) allowed millions of pounds of bluefish to be transferred from the recreational sector to the commercial sector? This has occurred over the last number of years. We would have also told them that Sandy has decimated a lot of structures that hold the baitfish that bluefish feed on. Extensive sandmining to repair the beaches damaged by Sandy has also taken its toll on lumps like Harvey Cedars that hold baitfish. Climate change is another factor. If we are not catching many bluefish like we used to do, then why is there even a need to drastically reduce our bluefish quota if we are not catching them? We do not know for sure why bluefish are not around in our local waters like they used to be, but, the bottom line is that recreational anglers are NOT responsible for this alleged drop in bluefish stocks.

However, it appears that NMFS has heard enough blow-back from recreational anglers and now it wants to hear public input before it makes a final decision on which way to go with bluefish management. The MAMFC announced that it will conduct a Scoping Hearing on the Bluefish Allocation and Rebuilding Amendment. The meeting in New Jersey will be held on February 18, 2020 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Ocean County Administration Building, room 119, 101 Hooper Ave., Toms River. Also, written comments can be received by email at: mseeley@mamafc.org or by snail mail to: Dr. Christopher Moore, Executive Director, Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, Suite 201, 800 North State Street, Dover DE, 19901. With your comments, include the phrase Bluefish Scoping. Comments must be received by 11:59 Easter Standard time, Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

Before you thank NMFS for this change of heart, think of their process in its coming up with this ill-conceived bluefish plan for us. We often hear that they have to cut back on our quotas for bluefish and other species because they have to follow the rules set by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This act also requires NMFS to review the economic impact that such new quotas will have on the recreational industry. When NMFS comes up with new quotas, we never see any reference to what economic impact their new quotas will have on our fishing industry. While the people involved in NMFS that are making decisions on how many fish we can or cannot keep do not suffer any economic consequences, our recreational fishing industry is being decimated by their decisions. How many boats, tackle shops and marinas have gone or are going out of business because of the draconian decisions made by NMFS on our fisheries? NMFS management often points out that they have to follow data that they know are flawed. So, fix it already! Get the funding to develop better data collection! We are tired of hearing about models that have flawed data in them used to justify cuts to recreational fishing quotas!

I (and a lot of other anglers) have been involved with so many of these meetings with these management individuals and we are always told that our quotas for various species will be cut affecting number of fish we can keep, size and seasons for them. Incredibly, at one of these meetings in Philadelphia a number of years ago, NMFS staff even wanted to close one of the summer months for fluke since they claimed we overfished our quota. This summer closure did not happen, but think of the economic consequences to our recreational industry if it did! This damage to people trying to make a living in our fishing industry does not enter their decision-making process. While their jobs are secure and their paychecks come on a regular basis, individuals in the recreational sector are struggling to make a living and this five bluefish limit will make it even harder for the for-hire boats to stay in business. When I think of all of the decisions that have come down from NMFS over the many years, I cannot think of ONE GOOD THING NMFS and their representatives have done for the recreational sector! They do think that they are doing their job by continually reducing our opportunities to fish.

I have tried to engage NMFS to change this picture by writing a letter and sending it to Mike Pentony who replaced John Bullard as the Administrator of NMFS in the Northeast Region. The letter I wrote to Pentony was on JCAA letterhead and indicated that John Bullard had a Round Table meeting on April 3, 2017 with about 25 anglers to review a number of issues that are of concern to us.

These issues were not resolved and that we wanted to have another Round Table meeting with Pentony to discuss these issues that we feel are important to us. John Bullard was not a friend to the recreational community and I was hoping with this new change in leadership that it could put us on a path to resolve issues like black sea bass. The stocks are healthy by the numbers of NMFS, but we continue to have reduced seasons to fish for them. I sent this letter to Mike Pentony on December 3, 2018 and I have NOT even received the dignity of a response from his office! Well, I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same!

During our meeting with John Bullard, I remember Ray Bogan saying to him, “we need your help since the recreational community is dying a slow death because of the decisions from NMFS that are continually going against us.” Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is not going to change in the near future.

CC: Mike Pentony Wilbur Ross, U. S. Commerce Secretary
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