NJ ADOPTS “SLOT” LIMIT ON FLUKE & SETS SEA BASS & PORGY REGS by Jim Hutchinson Jr., Fisherman Magazine

If you haven’t yet unwrapped your boat, better move quick – New Jersey’s fluke season opens up on May 2.

At an April 7th virtual hearing of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council), the 2022 summer flounder, black sea bass and porgy regulations were finally set.  On the fluke front, out of four potential options approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and moved forward by the Council’s advisory committee which met during the final week of March, the Council voted to make New Jersey the first state along the Atlantic Coast to ever have a “slot” option on fluke.

After a series of procedural votes – and continuing technological glitches – the council voted to implement a May 2 to September 27 fluke season with a two-fish slot possession limit from 17 to 17.99 inches, with one fish at 18 inches or greater.

The so-called “Option 2” was not the preferred option of the Council’s advisors (three fluke at 17-1/2 inches with a May 21 to September 23 season), but during the public comment portion the unique slot option was favored by members of the public by a nearly 2-1 ratio.  The final approval of the slot option came by way of a 6-2 vote by the Council.

There was plenty of discussion amongst members of the public in support of a slot fish; option two in particular would allow pressure to be taken off larger, breeding-sized fluke while also extending the season.  “Biologically speaking, it’s a good concept,” said Peter Clarke with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife (Division) of the slot option for fluke.

“By focusing on a smaller fish the discards would be diminished and discard mortality would be converted to harvest,” Clarke said, noting that the slot would also direct harvest towards a smaller size class that was more plentiful.  In addition to allowing for two smaller keepers measuring from 17 to 17.99 inches, the slot option also curried favor due to the longer length of season, with the 149 days of open season representing a 28-day increase over 2021.

As for the two special fluke management zones in New Jersey – two fluke at 16 inches at Island Beach State Park, and three summer flounder at 17 inches west of the COLREGS on Delaware Bay – the Council voted to leave those limits stand for 2022.

In terms of black sea bass, to meet the federally required 20% reduction in coastwide black sea bass harvest, the Council unanimously approved a recreational 13-inch size limit on black sea bass across the board with an open season from May 17 through June 19 and a 10-fish bag limit; July 1 through August 31 with a two-fish bag; October 7 through October 26 with a 10-fish bag; and November 1 through December 31 with a 15-fish possession limit.

Most members of the public who voiced opinions during the black sea bass portion of the meeting voted in favor of this particular option due the total length of season (177 days), though one concern brought up on this option had to do with the increase in size limit over 2021 and the potential for increasing overall harvest through higher mortality rates on released short fish.

While the meeting was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., Council and Division staffers spent the first several minutes performing technological testing and communications debugging; that hearing was actually kicked off by Chairman Dick Herb at 5:07 p.m.  Continued issues with the GoToWebinar “virtual” hearing however restricted some members of the public from commenting during the four-hour session, and Chairman Herb himself was dropped from the meeting several times before other Council members and Division staffers had to take up the “virtual” gavel.

The Council also approved a 1-inch size limit increase on porgies which was required by NOAA Fisheries throughout the Atlantic Coast.  In New Jersey, that means a 10-inch size limit on porgies will go into effect for 2022, with a 50 fish bag limit and no closed season.

Approximately 150 members of the fishing public had signed in go GoToWebinar by the time the fluke discussion began at roughly 5:15 p.m., though there were about 190 attendees at one point during that discussion.  By the time the black sea bass vote commenced at 8:28 p.m. 126 attendees were still tuned in for the online presentation.

While the Council’s approval of the 2022 options will effectively represent the final regulations for the 2022 season, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Division ultimately have to make it all official through statute.

The Council meeting was officially adjourned at 8:59 p.m.