The state will build a new artificial reef off Ocean County that will provide fishing grounds solely for recreational anglers.
In a move that Gov. Chris Christie's administration hopes will mark the end of a long feud between commercial fishermen and recreational anglers, commercial boats will continue to be allowed to fish on two reefs in state waters while the new reef – which will be built north of Barnegat Inlet – will be reserved for the recreational sector.
For years, recreational anglers have pushed for laws to be created that would ban commercial fishermen from utilizing the state's inshore reefs, which were paid for through excise taxes on recreational fishing equipment.
They have argued that their tax dollars went to fund the reef program, but their access has been blocked by a large amount of commercial gear – usually lobster pots – that obstruct the reef structure below the water and make them unusable.
Commercial fishermen have argued that they helped develop the state's network of artificial reefs as well.
New Jersey operates a total of 15 reefs, though only two – the Sandy Hook reef off northern Monmouth County and the Axel Carlson Reef off Bay Head and Mantoloking – are in state waters. The rest are located more than three nautical miles offshore, meaning they are under federal jurisdiction.
Many coastal states ban commercial fishing gear from reef sites, though bills proposed to accomplish the same in New Jersey have stalled for years in the legislature and have been subject to intense lobbying from both sides.
"The Christie administration recognizes that recreational and commercial fishing are each vital to New Jersey's economy," state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Martin said in a statement. "The commercial and recreational saltwater fishing industries provide enormous benefits to New Jersey, generating combined revenues of about $2.5 billion per year. We are confident that this compromise will address the needs of commercial fishermen and recreational anglers, and will result in restoration of federal funding that is vital to a program that provides tremendous benefits to our state."
The federal government has favored the prohibition of commercial fishing gear on artificial reefs, and due to New Jersey's lack of a ban, has withheld funding to develop and maintain the state's program.
As the compromise plan is implemented, the DEP will petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore nearly $250,000 in annual funding for artificial reef research, improvements and maintenance that has been withheld as a result of the ongoing dispute.
"We appreciate that the governor and Commissioner Martin stepped in here," said Jim Donofrio of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a national recreational fishing advocacy group based in New Gretna. "We were kind of deadlocked for seven years."
"RFA knew all along there was going to have to be a compromise, and we got lambasted by many people," he said. "Today proves that in politics, if you can't compromise you can't get anything done."
The compromise measure was also endorsed by Anthony Mauro of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance.
"Commissioner Martin's pledge is a giant step towards resolving gear conflicts, and addresses many concerns expressed by recreational anglers," he said in a statement. "Though the restoration of federal funding to the New Jersey Reef Program is requisite for a final resolution, we are very encouraged by the prospect of an equitable conclusion to what has long been an obstinate problem.''
Donofrio said the RFA will continue to push for a statewide pot management plan and a permitting process whereby out-of-state commercial fishermen will have to pay additional fees to place pots in state waters.
Federal funding, plus donations from the recreational and commercial fishing sectors will pay for the new reef, which is expected to cost about $200,000 to construct. Artificial reefs are mainly built out of rock, concrete objects known as reef balls and even sunken boats. The objects provide habitat in otherwise flat, sandy-bottom areas of ocean floor that are not attractive to fish.
The reef site would be about one square mile in size, and its exact location will be chosen as part of a permitting process between the DEP and the Army Corps of Engineers, though state officials confirmed it will be located north of Barnegat Inlet.
"That little piece of bottom will probably hold some nice fall fish for us, and I'm sure it will attract some huge summer flounder too," Donofrio said.