On calm, sunny days, dozens of boats dock at Kammerman’s Marina in Atlantic City.
Most set out to sea for one fish in particular: the Atlantic striped bass.
The popular recreational catch faced near extinction a few decades ago, leading to a temporary ban on capturing the species in the mid-1980s.
Now, there are fears striped bass are being overfished again amid a decades-long drop in their population— and new regulations may be coming to the chagrin of South Jersey fishermen.
The Atlantic States Marines Fisheries Commission, which manages fishing from Maine to North Carolina, wants to put more restrictions on the harvest. In an April memo, the commission said it was launching a study into how to reduce fish deaths by 17 percent by 2020.
“Striped bass are one of the most sought after game on the East Coast,” said Max Appelman, fishing coordinator at the commission. “There are probably a number of other variables are play, but these (fishing and overfishing) are the only two we can put our fingers on.”
The total weight of mature striped bass females has been declining since the early 2000s, after rebounding in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2017, it dropped to 151 million pounds from more than 250 million pounds ten years ago, stock assessments show.
But for the state’s anglers, more limits on striped bass catches are unwelcome. Some worry it could hurt businesses surrounding the industry, at a time when fishers say striped bass appear abundant in New Jersey’s waters.
New restrictions may include increasing the minimum size of fish that can be legally netted and closing some portions of the season.
“It won’t be popular, that’s for sure,” said Chris Kammerman, whose family has owned the small Atlantic City marina and fuel dock near Gardner’s Basin since 1961.
New size and bag limits, he said, will have a ripple effect on the entire fishing industry. There’s no commercial fishery in New Jersey, but recreational anglers can land two fish per day during the season. One can be 28 to 43 inches and the other greater than 43 inches.
Tweaking those quotas may leave fishermen asking whether spending money on fuel, bait and gear is worth it when the pay off is smaller.
“Fishing is expensive. It’s a labor of love when you go out there,” Kammerman said. “When (the commission) increases size limits, (fishermen) spend all this money to bring home one fish… A lot will just stay home.”
Another issue: Even after being caught and released, striped bass could die in the water anyway if the fishing hook punctures their organs. In 2017, 3.4 million striped bass died after being reeled in and thrown back into the ocean, according to the commission’s stock assessment.
The ASMFC may make a new, coast-wide requirement to use special equipment known as “circle hooks” when fishing with live bait in order to reduce striped bass mortality.
The sharply curved “circle hook” differs from the traditional “J-hook” because fish are less likely to swallow them and suffer from organ damage as a result.
Noah Feliciano, owner of the One Bait and Tackle store in Atlantic City, also worries about the impact new rules will have on his business and recreational fishers.
He expects less people will stop by the shop he’s owned for 20 years.
“I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel with this business,” Feliciano said.
A draft will be presented to the commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board in August. If approved, the board will considered its final approval in October for implementation in 2020.