For the first time since 2008, recreational fishermen in New Jersey will be allowed to keep summer flounder that are shorter than 18 inches.
In a 5-3 vote Thursday evening, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council approved regulations for the 2012 season of a 17.5-inch minimum size, with a limit of five fish per day, and a 147-day season running from May 5 to Sept. 28 at the its meeting at Toms River .
For an hour, fishermen representing groups from all parts of the state commented on the six options the council was considering. The council's summer flounder and black sea bass committee had recommended regulations that would have maintained the 18-inch minimum size that has been in place since the 2008 season and the eight-fish bag limit, with a 170-day season running from May 5 to Oct. 21.
Public comment was fairly evenly split on the options. Sentiment for staying with the 18-inch minimum pointed to a longer season that would reduce pressure on other fisheries, including black sea bass.
Those who favored the 17.5-inch minimum size commented the perception of being able to take home a smaller fish would boost business by prompting people to take more fishing trips because their chances of taking home a keeper would be increased.
They also pointed to the season ending in late September as better for the fishery.
"Something to consider is the October dates carry double the weight" in how the National Marine Fisheries Service calculates catch data, said Scott Albertson, owner of Scott's Bait & Tackle in Mystic Island, Little Egg Harbor Township.
Effectively, each fish caught that month would count as two.
Those favoring the 18-inch minimum expressed concern that decreasing the minimum size would lead to New Jersey overfishing its quota.
But several commenters repeated the information shared by Brandon Muffley, chief of New Jersey's Marine Fisheries division, which noted that New Jersey has done a very good job of matching its regulations to the quota in a way that has kept the state from overfishing.
Over the last 10 years, New Jersey has been on average 2 percent below its quota, Muffley said.
"The council has been successful in constraining the catch," said Ray Bogan, a Point Pleasant lawyer and long-time advocate for recreational fishermen.
At the end of the public comment, and with the committee's recommendation for the 2012 regulations as the standing motion, council member Erling Berg made a motion to replace the committee's recommendation with the option for the 17.5-inch minimum with the five-fish bag limit and a May 5-Sept. 28 season.
That motion passed 5-3, with Berg, Fran Puskas, Scott Bailey, Dr. Eleanor Bochenek and Joe Rizzo all voting in favor and Dr. Pat Donnelly, Dick Herb and Sergio Radossi voting against.
The amended motion then passed by the same vote, with the same votes in favor and against.