Things just got bad for shore-bound anglers looking to tangle with sharks in the New Jersey beach town of Sea Isle City. As of August 8, surf fishing for sharks of any kind is banned in the municipality. But before anyone comments on why this is bad or good for sharks, anglers, or the community, let’s dive into the history of surf sharking in New Jersey a bit.
Sharks in the New Jersey Surf
Prior to 1998, almost no one fished for sharks from the NJ shoreline. My old neighbor, Jackie, showed me pictures from the 1960’s of her and her dad, Buddy, holding six-foot dusky sharks they caught off of Normandy Beach, NJ and I was dumbfounded. I had always known stripers, blues and the other usual suspects were in the surf, but sharks? Nobody ever talked about that type of fishing in NJ, nor reported any catches.
So, I set out during a full moon night tide in 1998 with a half-assed wire rig and chunks of bunker to find out if they were still there. Soon, I began to catch monster sharks from the NJ beaches. I was able to catch browns, duskies, and even thresher sharks right from shore.
I went against my business interests as a sport fishing journalist and never wrote about this fishery until 2005, trying to keep the bite as low-key as possible. But, then the lid blew off and surf fishing for sharks in NJ became somewhat popular. Since 2009, sharks are a common target among experienced and novice surf anglers alike.
Though some question surf fishing for sharks, it remains an enjoyable pastime for many anglers. Those that partake responsibly likely don’t cause harm to shark populations. I am unaware of any statistics that indicate a higher mortality rate for sharks than other species released from shore.
But with any groundswell of activity comes the downside of popularity. The social media pandemic exponentially brought the fishery to light as people posted thousands of surf shark pics coming from NJ, creating the usual media insanity of sharks infesting our waters.
Federal Protection for Certain Near-Shore Sharks
It wasn’t so much an issue until around 2018, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared sand tigers, brown, and dusky sharks a federally protected species. This meant you couldn’t legally target those species, and if you happened to hook one while “fishing for stingrays or blacktip sharks” you could not take the shark out of the water. You must immediately release any of these as quickly as possible.
Social media hounds kept posting pictures of those newly protected species out of the water, handling the fish, and other acts now prohibited by federal regulations and the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife took note. NJ F&W began patrolling social media posts and retroactively issuing fines for those breaking the law. Still, the public was largely undeterred and land-based sharking continued in the Garden State.
Town-Wide Ban on Surf Sharking
It seems that the federal prohibitions on targeting certain shark species wasn’t enough for officials in some locales. Recently, the town of Sea Isle City enacted a law that prohibits fishing for sharks from the surf, punishable by a possible $1,250 fine for each violation.
As reported by the Press of Atlantic City, “According to the city, shore-based shark fishing is defined as any person targeting or harvesting sharks from the beach, including from any structure attached to the beach, such as piers, jetties and bridges. The prohibition extends to chumming/blood-baiting, the use of drones and the use of any vessel.”
Furthermore, the AC Press states, “City officials said they hope meetings with members of the local fishing and surfing communities ‘ensure reasonable regulations promoting the continued long-term harmonious sharing of surfing and fishing beaches by the stakeholders in these desired beach activities.’”
There are many potential reasons behind the ban. Tourism along the Jersey Shore reigns supreme in the summer months, so the town may be trying to quell any potential panic that can come along with images of sharks being brought up on area beaches. Though it should be noted that surf shark fishing is primarily done during the night hours, well past the time any tourists are on the beach.
Future of Surf Sharking in New Jersey
Though I am uncertain of the real reasons the law has been enacted in Sea Isle City, it is a disturbing motion that may set precedent to restrict fishing opportunities in the future. Will pier anglers, whom often chum to draw target species near their baited hooks, only be permitted to fish when tourist swimmers aren’t around? Likewise, will surf anglers be banned for driving formerly legally permitted beach buggies on the beaches to chase the stripers during the fall as some proposed legislation indicates?
Be aware of what’s coming down the line.