New Jersey’s “If You Can’t Keep It, Save It!” campaign won’t protect the flounder

If you can't keep it, save it

Summer flounder, or fluke, is one of the prized fish caught by recreational anglers in the salt water of New Jersey.  It’s an ugly fish with a flat body and both eyes on one side so that it can lay flat on the sandy bottom and ambush unsuspecting prey as it wanders by.  They also give good fights and are often a challenge to land since they have relatively weak mouths that can break and cause you to lose the fish.

And they’re also quite delicious.  It’s important to the economies of the New Jersey shore points.  Tournaments abound throughout the summer and it’s usually the thing that’s mentioned on fishing reports.

So when the number of flounder seem to start dwindling, there’s pressure to do something about it.  My dad and uncles and others their age love to talk about how plentiful the fish used to be.  There were no size or creel limits on fish back them.  But today, flounder need to 18-in long in order to keep in the State of New Jersey.  And there seems to be even more strain this summer, so much so that the State has instituted the “If You Can’t Keep It, Save It!” campaign in order to make sure fish that cannot be legally kept are returned safely to the water.

The conversation effort is mostly focused on reducing discard mortality, which is when fish are morbidly injured during the catch and release process.  Things that affect discard mortality include the fish swallowing the hook (hooks are made to dissolve over time in case this happens) and the angler attempting to pull it out, throwing the fish back into the water instead of placing it, handling the fish with dry hands and removing its protective layer of slime, etc.  The campaign aims to provide education on these topics but it also does something else.

The State is giving out 20,000 free hooks.  They’re a large style of J-hook that is supposed to make it more difficult for a flounder to swallow.  What’s interesting is that most flounder anglers use wide gap hooks anyway, so how much the use of a different will help isn’t exactly obvious to me.

If you ask any recreational flounder angler, undoubtedly blame the commercial fisherman for overfishing the flounder as they are not bound by the limits that recreational anglers are.  So does further restricting recreational anglers and/or giving them free fishing equipment solve the problem?  I don’t think anyone believes that.  But should the government restrict the commercial fishermen?

How should the government handle conserving flounder?

It shouldn’t.  The flounder population, as well as any other fish, would best be protected and conserved if private property standards were applied to the waters in which they live.  Since they’re considered public, the tragedy of the commons occurs.  Users have a very high time preference and simply use as much as they can in the short time period.  If the waters were allowed to be homesteaded and ownership rights were granted, then the owners would have an incentive to protect their property and the resources within it.  In other words, the property owners, who have something to gain from the property’s preservation, would demonstrate a much lower time preference and this arrangement would help prevent overfishing.

Respect of private property is always the answer.  Trying to get the state to solve a problem it created will only cause more problems and inflict more harm upon additional people.

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