Save the fish — but what about the fishermen? NJ wants federal rules eased
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has not been on the job a week but he already is being asked to make a decision that could have long lasting ramifications on the New Jersey fishing industry.
Gov. Chris Christie and the state's Department of Environmental Protection have asked Ross to at least delay restrictions that would go into effect with the upcoming summer flounder season. DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said the move came in response to new quotas from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries commission, would be a 34 percent drop in the recreational quota from last year.
"This action imposes a de facto moratorium on recreational summer flounder fishing in my state," Martin said in the letter. "This action also is disproportionately damaging to New Jersey compared to other states."
While the move is viewed as a win by several outdoor groups, others like the Sierra Club of New Jersey say not implementing the lower quota could endanger the fish population for years to come.
Jeff Tittel, the group's director, said he believed fishing groups were being "shortsighted" by looking to lower the quota.
"Even though the restrictions may feel very severe right now, if we don't put the restrictions in place, or at least some kind of limits on the catches, in a few years there may not be any fish able to fish."
Looking at the proposed cut to the quota, Tittel said he would have preferred a solution that would work for everyone involved rather than something that other groups might see as too extreme.
"My biggest concern is that the DEP, instead of really looking at the fisheries and trying to come up with some kind of compromise, wants to go to the other extreme and lift limits versus maybe something in between where commerce was and maybe the fishermen want to be."
Tittel acknowledged that the issue does not have an easy solution and that there are many issues facing both sides.
"It puts everybody in an awkward balance," he said. "On one hand, recreational fishermen and others want to be able to go out there and fish, and it hurts them economically. On the other hand, if you end up over fishing then your industry is gone. We've seen this happen before."
Tittel said the reduction in the quota is based on data from several studies, but Sergio Radoissi of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance said that data has not been shown to be conclusive, and that more work needs to be done to see what the current state of the fishery is and what an acceptable quota would be for all parties involved.
"The fallback when you don't have good inputs is to take a conservative approach," he said. "The entire fishing community, the commercial fishery, and the recreational fishery has been faced with continuing cuts to the quota and increases in the size of the minimum fish that you're allowed to take. That puts a burden on the commercial boats, that puts a burden on the recreational boats."
Believing that the stock assessments are incorrect, Martin said the DEP is also asking that a new one be taken, and that the way the data is collected may need to be changed.
The changes to the quota, Radossi added, would also affect other parts of the community.
"That is devastating to not only the individual recreational fishermen, but it is also devastating to businesses related to it such as party boats, charter boats, marinas, gas stations, the sandwich shops that make lunch for the fishermen, the tourist industry."
Martin said if the new quota is implemented, it could affect an industry that employs 20,000 people and brings in $1.5 billion.
In addition to the overall quota being changed, Martin said the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission also wants to cut the number off fish that individuals can catch from five to three, which would also affect how likely people would be to want to go fishing to begin with.
"For New Jersey, it's going to be devastating to our recreational industry out there for our boats, our charter boats, bait and tackle shops out there, everyone is going to be impacted if this goes through."
Tittel said he is aware of the challenges the fishing industry is facing, especially since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area just a few years ago, but said the future must also be considered in addition to the present.
"We're not opposed to fishing," he said. "We think this is an important part of our coastal economy and that fishermen many times have been some of our best allies as far as fighting dumping off our coast, or drilling, or other things. I just think we need to figure out some kind of compromise that might be somewhere in between so at least we can stave off the crash of the fisheries which will happen at some point if we go back to the old system."
Martin said he has already seen progress since the letter was sent with representatives from the Commerce Department looking to set up a meeting or at least a conversation aimed at finding a solution.
"We're asking them to stop going forward, stop the regulations from going forward," he said.
David Matthau contributed to this report.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com