On the plus side, the Council and Commission agreed to a vote of conservational equivalency for summer flounder once again this year, based on the fact that states would have the option to relax their summer flounder limits for the coming season. "Based on the projected summer flounder landings according to MRFSS in relation to the allowable targets we were given in the way of season, bag and size limits, it looks like we'll be able to see a less restrictive fishery in the season ahead," said Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA).
Donofrio said that landings data from the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (or MRFSS) this past season indicate that states like New York, which have the most restrictive summer flounder limits along the coast, should be able to liberalize their seasonal limits by upwards of 40% in 2011 as opposed to 2010 regulations. "MRFSS numbers are so bad, so grossly out of whack, that the swing from one season to the next can be off by 100% either way," Donofrio said. "Our Mid-Atlantic anglers have been taking such a hit in fluke quotas over the past few years, it's good to hear some good news for once on this front," Donofrio added.
Capt. Adam Nowalsky, chairman of the RFA-NJ chapter, was recently appointed to the Commission as New Jersey's legislative commissioner's proxy and attended the Virginia meetings in his official capacity on behalf of the state of New Jersey. "It was nice to see that coast-wide fluke limits and conservational equivalency did not come to a head for a season," Nowalsky said, adding "for once the summer flounder discussions weren't a major bone of contention in the room."
No bones about it, Nowalsky said the contentious issues would follow after the summer flounder meeting when the Council and Commission began debate on measures to achieve a proposed 26% reduction in the porgy 2011 landings. After lengthy discussion, Council decided to change their earlier quota recommendation and voted to increase the porgy quota to bring it to a level over 5 million pounds, a change which should result in no required reductions for that fishery in 2011.
"I'm certainly encouraged by the effort to increase scup quota, however the harvest limits remain far below the maximum level that was recommended by the Council's own science and statistical committee," Nowalsky said. "When Council voted on the lower porgy quota at the August meetings in Philadelphia, our party boat captains were looking at another dismal fishing season, so this is certainly something for guys to chew on." While anglers may be satisfied with the porgy news, the Mid-Atlantic region's beleaguered party and head boat industry suffered another debilitating blow when Council voted on management measures to reduce the black sea bass season by an additional 50 days in 2011.
"I woke up Thursday morning watching the Council Chairman Rick Robins telling America that today's fisheries management process was a success, despite another vicious cut on our coastal fishing community just one day earlier," Donofrio said in reference to a CNBC SquawkBox interview on December 16. "I'm not sure how these representatives can keep smiling away about the health of the stock when our party boat captains and tackle shop owners are lining up at the unemployment office because they can't access these healthy fisheries."
Nowalsky said that the black sea bass debate became mired in fisheries politics, as members of the Council could not come to an agreement with views held by Commission members, particularly those from Northern states. The rift was amplified when a proposal came to the floor for status quo black sea bass recreational measures for 2011 plus pursuing an amendment to address conservational equivalency.
After comments from Chairman Robins and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Council members became convinced that they had to vote for more restrictive measures designed to meet a 43% reduction in landings. Nowalsky said as a Commissioner he was not in favor of this path.
"I made the case in opposition to take any further sea bass reductions based on the fact that by continually implementing harsher restrictions with such severe socioeconomic impacts on our fishing community through use of MRFSS data was in direct violation of the Magnuson Stevens Act," Nowalsky said, who pointed specifically to National Standard 1, the federal rule which sets key guidelines for meeting the requirements of the Magnuson Stevens Act.
"Specifically, National Standard 1 calls for achieving an optimum yield and has itself required that improvements be made to this flawed data collection program which by law was required to have been done two full seasons ago," Nowalsky said. "The process of specifications setting is broken, even more so when the 'fatally flawed' MRFSS data continues to be the basis for these deductions," Nowalsky told theAsbury Park Press last week.
RFA said New Jersey failed to make any impact on the sea bass discussion since Nowalsky's vote at the Commission level was nullified by an opposing view at the Board side. "At one of the two most important meetings of the year affecting recreational anglers, our Governor's appointee to the Commission in New Jersey wasn't there to break the tie vote between the two deadlocked entities," Donofrio said. "Every state gets three votes to avoid this type of stalemate, I think our New Jersey representatives should've arranged in advance to have a proxy in Virginia Beach to answer as Governor's appointee for just such a situation," Donofrio said.
Earlier this week, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) sent an official letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to intervene on behalf of the recreational fishing public and associated businesses for better quotas. "Regulations proposed by NOAA and NMFS fail to consider this is a fully rebuilt stock that isn't being overfished and that these restrictions will have severe consequences for the fishing community," Pallone said.
Congressman Pallone, a long-time supporter of fishermen's rights and a ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee said "Both science and the fishing industry have been ignored and I would like to see changes to the final regulations."
RFA and fellow plaintiffs have filed a federal lawsuit based on the black sea bass measures going back to the 2009/2010 closure, and have named NOAA Fisheries and the Commerce Secretary as defendants in the case. Visit the RFA homepage at www.joinrfa.org to learn more.