"Freedom To Fish" Spawns Fight

Environmentalists Back Protected Areas as Anglers Demand Proof

by Rudy Larini Star-Ledger Staff
Friday May 16th 2003

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association June 2003 Newsletter)

Sports fishermen love it. Many environmental groups loathe it.


It has a seemingly innocuous, if not downright Tom Sawyerish, all- American name -- the Freedom to Fish Act.

But it's making waves in Trenton, where last-minute amendments last night prevented it from coming up for a vote in the Assembly.


The measure would impose restrictions on the state's authority to create marine protected areas, where fishing would be prohibited to allow fish populations to rebound


Currently there are no such protected areas in New Jersey waters -- and few elsewhere along the nation's coast. But proponents of the bill seek to enact it as a pre-emptive strike against such a broad- based ban.


"There are proposals all over the place," said Forbes Darby, special projects director for the American Sport Fishing Association, citing Massachusetts, Oregon, Florida, California and Hawaii as states where he knows of proposals for protected areas.


Opponents of the bill say the Freedom to Fish Act would effectively block a route the state might need to take to prevent overfishing. In an op-ed piece in yesterday's Star-Ledger, "Jaws" author Peter Benchley said the bill would be more aptly named the "License to Kill Bill."


Under the Assembly bill, a marine protected area could not be designated and closed to fishing unless it could be proved that fishing has created a specific conservation problem -- such as the decline of a species' population -- and that less drastic measures would not work.

 "We're not against shutting an area down to protect a species in that area. All we're saying is that it should be scientifically proven," said Tom Fote, legislative chairman of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association. "To arbitrarily close an area to recreational fishing without science is absurd."


Opponents say scientific proof that fishing is responsible for a depleted fishing stock would be difficult if not impossible to obtain.

"That's a very high hurdle based on the language in that bill," said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.


On the Assembly floor last night, the bill was amended to apply to commercial as well as recreational fishing. Another amendment allows the Department of Environmental Protection, in conjunction with the state's advisory Marine Fisheries Council, to determine what criteria must be met to show that a marine protected area is warranted.


Both proponents and opponents of the bill said they recognize the irony of having environmental groups and sports fishermen at opposite ends of the spectrum on a measure that purports to do what they both say is necessary -- protect fishing stock.


"It's bizarre to me," Benchley said in a telephone interview from his Princeton home, adding that a group of sports fishermen he has worked with in Florida, the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, supports marine protected areas and opposes Freedom to Fish legislation like the bill pending in New Jersey.

"They feel the same way we do," he said, "that there comes a time when the government has to have

the power to take some action to protect fishing stock."


Fote said sports fishermen are mindful of the need to protect species from being overfished and support area closures for valid reasons.


"In the Delaware River, we don't allow fishing for striped bass during spawning runs," he said. "Just because we represent fishing interests, that doesn't mean we're not environmentalists, too."

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