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New Jersey Reef Battle Subsides
by Gary Caputi

New Jersey boasts one of the oldest and most extensive artificial reef programs in the nation, a model public-private partnership that has created 15 reef sites both in and outside of State waters. Over the years the reefs fell prey to an ever increasing amount of commercial fish pot gear on what was supposed to be areas set aside for recreational fishing.

The money used to create the reefs came from the efforts of recreational fishing clubs, tournaments, Wallop-Breaux Sport Fish Restoration Funds and donations of reefing materials from a wide variety of sources. Recreational fishermen became incensed by the gear littering the reefs to the point that it made fishing difficult to near impossible at times. The situation became a political hot potato between recreational and commercial fishermen and competing legislation in the two houses of the State Legislature that would grow into a case of Trenton gridlock.

The crux of the problem came in the form of two areas on reefs inside state waters that were naturally occurring hard bottom that lobster fishermen had been potting for generations. They wanted to retain access to those areas while a hardcore, no compromise state sportsman’s group refused to even consider it. The battle raged over the past few years during which time the State was denied use of any further Sport Fish Restoration Funds for reef building due to the commercial-use problem.

Last week NJ-DEP Commissioner Bob Martin announced a compromise on behalf of the Christie Administration that was long overdue that should reopen the door to federal funds and be the first step in petitioning the NMFS for Special Management Zone classification for the remaining reefs that would prohibit commercial gear year round.

The plan will allow commercial potters continued access to the disputed portions of the Sandy Hook and Axel Carlsen reefs in state waters, an area encompassing about one square mile while permitting recreational fishing in those areas. To mitigate the compromised area a totally new reef exclusively for recreational fishing will be constructed of roughly one square mile between Manasquan and Barnegat Inlets inside state waters.

“The Christie Administration recognizes that recreational and commercial fishing are each vital to New Jersey’s economy,” Commissioner Martin said. “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.”

Seed money for the new reef will come from the restoration of $250,000 that was withheld by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for that purpose and from private donations. It is expected to take about two years to complete.

At the press conference I asked Commissioner Martin if the State will now petition the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council for Special Management Zone designation to prohibit commercial gear from the 13 reef sites in federal waters. He said that was part of the plan and that the process has already begun. SMZ status is something new for artificial reefs in the Northeast and is required for all reefs built by states in federal waters to make them recreational fishing only.