Flounder decision could send states back to the 1970s

July 22, 2017

I try to avoid getting into controversial issues, but sometimes I must, just to let readers know the whole story. The decision by the current secretary of commerce to approve New Jersey’s self-developed 2017 summer flounder regulations is such an issue.

First a bit of history: Back in the mid-1970s, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service convened a State-Federal Striped Bass Management Board in an attempt to develop consistent regulations along the Atlantic Seaboard. Roy Miller and I were the Delaware representatives. It was a long process because each state knew what was wrong with the striped bass, and it was always the way the fish were regulated in another state.  

In the beginning, we could not come together on a motion to have a 12-inch minimum size. Even when we tried to come up with regulations, there was no way to make a state comply until Sen. Chafee from Rhode Island introduced and had the Congress pass a bill requiring all states to obey regulations developed by the ASMFC or else be subject to a closing of that fishery in their state waters.

This nice, big federal hammer has kept fisheries regulations in place and was responsible for saving the striped bass after Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes imposed a moratorium on the fish and ASMFC followed suit.

This same law also helped restore the summer flounder population back in the late 1980s. In this case as well, we began trying to get a 12-inch minimum size limit and ended up where we are today with a 17-inch limit in Delaware and a proposed 19-inch limit in states to our north.

Now along comes New Jersey with what they consider a plan that is equivalent to the one developed by the ASMFC. The ASMFC Technical Committee disagreed, and the member states voted to find New Jersey out of compliance.

New Jersey appealed this decision to the secretary of commerce, and he decided the New Jersey plan was OK. While I am sure there are many people who will applaud this decision as a victory for states’ rights, I see it as a fatal crack in the fisheries management structure. I am personally aware that without a federal hammer to require the states to accept the decisions of a multi-state commission such as the ASMFC, the entire fishery will suffer. This does not even consider the chaos of having every state make up its own fisheries laws and the numerous enforcement problems.

As someone who has been in the marine fishery business for more than 40 years, I know the hardships that we suffer from regulations that make it very difficult for people to take some fish home after spending money on a fishing trip. Charter and head boats, tackle shops, boat dealers and everyone else associated with the marine fishing business will experience problems, and some will go out of business.

I also know that marine fish have cycles of abundance and depletion. If you spend any time on the water, you have to be aware that there are not as many flounder around as there were just a few years ago. According to fisheries managers, summer flounder have experienced six years of below-average reproduction, and continuing to fish on a depleted stock is just a bad idea.

I also have no illusions that anything is going to change in the near future. The current administration in Washington, D.C., has promised to do away with as many regulations as possible, be that for better or worse. 

In the near future, any member of the ASMFC that does not like the regulations on any fish can appeal to the secretary of commerce and stand a good chance of having their own management plan approved. In other words, it’s back to 1970 without the DeLorean.

Fishing report

The summer fishing pattern continues. Flounder are caught over hard structure in the bay and ocean. A few more keepers were caught in Indian River and Rehoboth bays as well as Indian River Inlet.  

The Outer Wall holds triggerfish and sheepshead as do the rock jetties at Indian River Inlet. These same fish have been caught on wrecks at Fenwick Island as well as reef sites in the ocean and bay, and the pilings at the fishing pier in Cape Henlopen State Park.

The inshore lumps continue to produce tuna on the chink and troll. Early this week, a 200-pound swordfish was caught by the Get R Done out of Ocean City, Md. The big billfish hit a trolled bait during the day at the Chicken Bone in only 20 fathoms.

The canyons are seeing a few more billfish, but overall this fishery is a bit slow. That will change as more boats begin looking for marlin before the White Marlin Open begins. 

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at