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U.S. bans black sea bass fishing in its waters

U.S. bans black sea bass fishing in its waters

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The federal government is banning black sea bass angling, beginning Monday, for 180 days because the year's catch is already over the 2009 quota.

The ban covers only federal waters that run from three to 200 miles offshore - but this is where 96 percent of New Jersey's keeper black sea bass are landed. Fish are caught inside three miles, but are generally too small to keep. The minimum size is 12.5 inches.

The ban also would apply in state waters for anyone holding a federal permit to land black sea bass, said Maggie Mooney-Seus, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

The ban presents immediate problems for the region's recreational fishing industry, including party and charter boats, as fluke season was closed early this year and migratory striped bass will not arrive until the water gets colder. Anglers are limited to one tautog per day and stocks of some other traditional catches, such as weakfish, are way down this year.

"Sea bass is one of the few things we have to fish for. It's one of the few things keeping people going," said Ed Goldman, a member of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council.

Even if the upcoming fall striped bass run provides some relief, Goldman said party and charter boats often work the offshore reefs and wrecks during the winter and spring for sea bass. The ban announced by the NOAA Fisheries Service would run into the spring.

There is some conflicting data, but the NOAA Fisheries Service is projecting the 2009 East Coast quota of 1.14 million pounds could be exceeded by as much as 225 percent. The service says the lowest overage would come in at 84 percent without the ban.

"As of mid-August we were at the target for the year. We projected the rest of the year based on what the fishing industry has done historically. It would be over 84 to 225 percent based on historic performance," Mooney-Seus said.

Data on recreational landings has come under attack for years from anglers, environmental groups and even scientific organizations. The Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey, or MRFSS, is compiled by interviewing anglers on what they catch.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance, a sport-fishing group based in Galloway Township, said MRFSS data should not be used to close a fishery.

"The National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences) said MRFSS is fatally flawed. Now they are taking an arbitrary action based on flawed data that we may be overfishing," RFA Director Jim Donofrio said.

Mooney-Seus argued MRFSS data is "all we have" to go by. She said the projected overage is so high that action had to be taken.

"Even if MRFSS isn't right on the mark, that is a pretty significant overage," she said.

The ban, she noted, would lead to less of an overage in 2009 and this could translate into a better quota for 2010. If anglers had come in at 225 percent over, it could have closed the recreational fishery for 2010.

"The goal is to not have to do that," Mooney-Seus said.

Commercial harvests are within targets and not subject to the ban. A huge recreational overage, however, could result in commercial cuts, Mooney-Seus said.

It's unclear what the overage will be with the moratorium, but it should be considerably less than 84 percent, she said.

Regulators have been aware of the potential overages for a while. In early September, the East Coast states considered closing state waters, but voted 7-4 to keep the fishery open. At that time, NOAA Fisheries hinted it might ban catches in federal waters.

The black sea bass fishery is actually considered to be in good shape. Stocks recently were declared rebuilt, meeting a requirement under a federal law. Marine scientists, however, argue that not much is known about reproductive cycles and life spans for the species, so harvests should proceed with caution. Mooney-Seus said any increase in catches should be gradual.

Fishermen remain concerned the move is being pushed by environmental groups who, Donofrio charged, want to turn the ocean into some sort of "marine petting zoo."

Under President Barack Obama's administration, the regional fishery councils that advise NOAA Fisheries have been stocked with environmentalists who are pushing cuts in harvests, Donofrio said, adding that Obama has appointed people with links to the Pew Environment Group to top positions, including new NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and her deputy Monica Medina.

Goldman lost his seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council when he was replaced recently by environmentalist Christopher Zeman.

"They're going to get us off the water. This is Pew's goal right now, and they have their lieutenants and captains in the right place, and this is what they're doing," Donofrio said.

Mooney-Seus, however, said Lubchenco has been in office only a matter of months and fishery management regulations take years to put in place. She said the fishing targets predate the appointment of Lubchenco.

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