13 Artificial Reefs in Federal Waters Finally Cleared of Traps

by John Toth
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association October 2018 Newsletter)

Background: A number of readers may be under the impression that the 13 artificial reefs in federal waters off New Jersey’s coast have already been cleared of commercial traps. Others may have totally forgotten about this issue. Other readers may not even know that it was a problem since removing commercial traps off 15 of New Jersey’s artificial reefs has taken over 12 years to do! Our memories tend to grow dull when resolving an issue like this over a 12-year period that has taken so many twists and turns. Let me highlight some of the major points in the struggle of recreational anglers to remove these traps.

Under the direction of Mr. Bill Figley, our state DEP in the 1980’s began the development of creating 15 artificial reefs, two in our state’s waters and 13 in federal waters. These reefs provide a habitat for a large number of salt water species and they also enhanced fishing opportunities for recreational anglers. These reefs were built with funds provided by the federal government under the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program and by various fishing clubs and private monies. The federal monies come from excise taxes on our fishing tackle. Essentially, these reefs were built with funds from recreational anglers and were intended to be for general use, like a public park system for everybody to use. It is estimated that 20% of the fish caught in New Jersey come from these 15 reefs.

Unfortunately, these reefs were so successful in attracting fish and lobsters that they also attracted commercial fishermen who completely covered these reefs with their traps. Recreational anglers got their gear continually snagged by these traps, rendering the reefs virtually unusable for them.

Recreational anglers, fed up with their inability to use the reefs, organized to take these reefs back by forming Reef Rescue, a group of recreational anglers, clubs and divers pushing for new rules to remove commercial traps from the reefs. Removal would be through new state regulations and the reefs declared as Special Management Zones (SMZS) that would prohibit the use of traps on the reefs.

Reef Rescue, a Council Member of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance (NJOA), spearheaded a number of initiatives to remove the traps by galvanizing anglers to sign petitions, sending emails to their legislators and meeting with them to get legislation passed for the removal of these traps. On several occasions, Reef Rescue was successful in getting a majority of New Jersey’s senators and assemblymen and women to support this legislation, but the Speakers of the Assembly (Albano and Roberts) would not post the bill due to their ties to commercial anglers. Angered by this frustration, Reef Rescue organized an official protest in front of Assemblyman Albano’s office in Cape May on April 9th, 23rd and April 30th of 2011 with anglers (including JCAA members) carrying posters with the message “Give Us Back Our Reefs”! Close to 100 anglers were at these three demonstrations. In addition to these demonstrations, funding for reefs from the federal government was suspended due to recreational anglers not being able to use them according to the regulations of the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program.

What these demonstrations accomplished was to draw public attention to this issue that eventually led to Assemblyman Albano chairing a meeting of the Assembly Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee on March 8, 2012 proposing that the two reefs in New Jersey’s waters (Sandy Hook and Axel Carlson) be split for use by both recreational and commercial anglers. It became apparent to Reef Rescue and NJOA Council members that further efforts to remove all of the traps on these two reefs through legislation would go on endlessly since the commercial industry had important ties to legislators that would thwart total removal of the traps. So a compromise was reached in 2015 whereby these two reefs would be split for usage by both commercial and recreational anglers. To appease recreational anglers for the loss of their space on the two reefs, agreement was also reached that the New Jersey DEP would build a new artificial reef for use only by recreational anglers by the Manasquan Inlet that would occupy approximately one square mile.

While the usage of the two reefs in New Jersey’s waters was resolved, what about the 13 reefs in federal waters? Would they also be split for usage like the Sandy Hook and Axel Carlson reefs?

In 2016, our state DEP petitioned the Mid-Atlantic Council (MAMFC) to designate these 13 artificial reefs as Special Management Zones. The MAMFC Steering Committee reviewed this issue and it recommended that the 13 reefs should have SMZ status. One issue that did not help the commercial sector is their claim to the IRS that they only made $25,000 in profits a year from using the 13 reefs! This bolstered the argument that the commercial anglers would not be adversely affected if these reefs became SMZ’s.

At a December 12th MAMFC meeting in Baltimore a vote was taken on whether to have the 13 reefs designated as SMZ’s and it passed (9 votes for and 8 against). The usual suspects on the MAMFC who vote against recreational anglers did not prevail – including the New York representative who said we need to study this issue more even though thousands of anglers signed petitions to have the traps removed!

However, before the reefs could be finally declared SMZ’s, public hearings and input from both the commercial and recreational communities had to be received by the MAMFC. A final decision was delayed with the departure of John Bullard being replaced by Mike Pentony.

On July 9th, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finally ruled that the 13 artificial reefs can be fished with hook & line and spears by divers. All traps must be removed by August 8, 2018.

This whole story could be made into a book, but I have tried to give you 12 years of our struggle to remove the traps off our reefs in a few pages. I want to THANK ALL of the JCAA clubs and NJOA Council members, especially Reef Rescue, for making this happen! Sometimes, recreational anglers win one!

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