The Christie administration is formally asking the federal government to put a hold on restrictions on summer flounder fishing, a step many fear would cripple the state’s fishing industry and harm the shore tourism economy.
The petition by the state Department of Environmental Protection would halt new limits on flounder fishing imposed by a regional fisheries commission, which acted after surveys suggested overfishing was leading to a decline in the population of the fishery.
The move to overturn the new restrictions has won bipartisan support of the state’s congressional delegation, state lawmakers, and commercial and recreational fishing interests. They take issue with the science behind the decision made by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last month reducing the catch by 34 percent.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin wrote that the restrictions will ‘’put our recreational summer flounder industry in serious jeopardy.’’
Summer flounder, also known as fluke, is one of the state’s most popular sports fish, particularly for charter boats catering to tourists and anglers along the Jersey coast. The new restrictions took effect in January although the summer flounder season in New Jersey typically runs from May through September.
“This action imposes a de facto moratorium on recreational summer flounder fishing in my state,’’ Martin said. “This action also is disproportionately damaging to New Jersey compared with other states.’’
Tom Fote, legislative chairperson of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, said the new limits could cost the recreational fishing industry up to $80 million a year.
But Kiley Dancy, a fishery management specialist for the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, said about 20 surveys of the flounder population indicated overfishing was occurring. “We are approaching an overfish threshold,’’ she said.
Under the restrictions adopted by the council, New Jersey’s size limit for recreational anglers would be increased to 19 inches — the old limit was 17 inches along Delaware Bay and at least 18 inches elsewhere in New Jersey waters. The number of fish that could be kept each day would be reduced from five to three.
Fote noted that most of the fish that anglers could keep under the new limits would be breeding-size females. Ninety percent of the fish that meet the 19-inch limit are females, according to the state.
In its letter to Ross, the state is requesting that the new regulations be rolled back, that the old limits be reinstated, and that a new assessment of summer flounder be undertaken.
“New Jersey recognizes the importance of protecting our marine resources by preventing the overfishing of any species,’’ Martin noted. “But the decisions that are made to ensure the health of fisheries must be based on reliable data about the health of the fishery and the use of up-to-date, sound science.’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, criticized going back to the old limits. “Pollution and overfishing are now threatening flounder numbers and stricter catch limits would keep the population healthier for the future,’’ he said.