Cape Gazette
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Outdoors

Could nor’easter mark the end of winter?

By Eric Burnley | Mar 09, 2013

I am going to make a weather-related prediction. I predict the nor’easter we experienced in the middle of the week will mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring. We will now have warming temperatures, light winds and calm seas. The rockfish run will begin soon, as will the flounder bite in shallow water. OK, so this may be just wishful thinking, but I couldn’t be much further off than that Pennsylvania rodent.

Marine Fishery Management

There are two agencies that manage our coastal fish stocks: the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Management Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. If you followed me through that alphabet soup, the rest is easy.

In the beginning, NMFS managed fish that spent most of their life cycle in federal waters beyond the state’s three-mile limit. With the exception of highly migratory fish like tuna and marlin that are managed very badly by an international agency, the misnamed International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.

Fish that spend a good deal of their lives in state waters are managed by ASMFC. This includes striped bass even though they also swim well beyond the three-mile limit. The NMFS manages fish that live in federal waters.

This management system has one agency handling flounder and sea bass with another doing stripers. Over the years, I have served on advisory councils for all three species.

When striped bass were in trouble, the ASMFC and NMFS put together an advisory council in an effort to find a solution to the problem. I represented Delaware’s recreational fishermen, and Roy Miller was Fish and Wildlife’s representative.

The problem was, the ASMFC had no power to enforce any regulations we recommended. This changed when Congress passed a law providing ASMFC with the authority to shut down any state’s fishery if that state failed to put in place regulations to comply with a management decision. Striped bass became a total ASMFC responsibility when the feds closed fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Currently, we are dealing with new regulations for sea bass and flounder. These fish were always managed by NMFS, but recently ASMFC has been getting involved. This is a wise decision, because as we saw last November when NMFS shut down the sea bass season with three days' notice, the states did not have time to follow through, meaning sea bass season was open in state waters, but closed in the EEZ. It was possible for those who were so inclined to run out to the EEZ, catch a limit of sea bass and be home free once they were inside the three-mile limit. To date I have not heard of anyone doing this, but I certainly know people who have done the same thing with stripers.

Flounder are managed by quotas. First, a Total Allowable Landing number is set according to the best available data. Commercial data is derived from reports recorded at the point of landing. Recreational data is a guesstimate derived from surveys conducted at landing sites and over the phone.

The TAL is divided among the two user groups with the commercial section receiving 60 percent and the recreational sector receiving 40 percent. The commercial quota is divided into four calendar quarters to prevent commercial fishing operations from landing the entire quota in one month and having their season closed. The recreational quota is divided among the states with each jurisdiction receiving a list of options to choose from.

Several factors go into developing these options. The size of the state, the amount of flounder caught during the proceeding year and the health of the flounder stock are all considered. Last year Delaware failed to fill its quota, so we were allowed more relaxed regulations. New Jersey overfished its quota and this year will have a shortened season.

There have been discussions on setting flounder quotas for regions rather than individual states. The last I heard, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia would be one region while New Jersey and New York would be another. This is still in the discussion stage, and no final decision has been made.

As you can see, the process for establishing regulations governing marine fish in Delaware is not quite as simple as we might like. You should also note that DNREC Fish and Wildlife personnel have very little to say about these regulations. For the most part, the laws are set by various agencies with input from public and private representatives from Delaware and the other coastal states.

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