NMFS to Close the Sandy Hook Marine Lab
By Bruce Freeman
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association April 2012 Newsletter)
Fishermen reacted in shock and disbelief when the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) announced its plan to close the James J. Howard Marine Laboratory at Sandy Hook. It was just last September that the director of NMFS spoke of the importance of the Lab and the fishery research being done there, as he joined other dignitaries and the public in celebrating the laboratory’s 50th anniversary.
The rapid growth in recreational fishing during the 1950s, as well as the public’s ever increasing desire for understanding about the life habits of marine fishes and their environmental requirements, prompted the federal government to take action. It did so in early 1960. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Sport Fisheries set out to establish a nationwide system of research facilities devoted to fishes of interest to anglers. The very first such facility was the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory. The Bureau chose one of its distinguished fishery scientists , L.A. Walford, to select a location and hire its staff. After its modest beginning in a reconditioned US Army hospital overlooking Sandy Hook Bay, the enthusiastic staff developed innovative research programs that set a high standard of accomplishment.
For example, a team of biologists began a series of behavioral studies concentrating on bluefish, tautog and fluke to determine how environmental factors such as water temperature and the amount of daylight governed activities such as swimming speed and feeding rates. Other biologists initiated the first coastwide tagging study to determine the migration pattern of bluefish. Still others began the first coastwide age and growth study of bluefish. Other biologists carried out the first long term, multiyear systematic survey of fish eggs and larvae occurring off the coast from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras. Others set out to find answers to continuing questions posed by sport fishermen about the occurrence and migration of large sharks commonly found offshore of New Jersey and New York. This study developed into the first coastwide cooperative tagging study of large pelagic fishes. Other biologists collected year-round ocean water temperatures and correlated them with the occurrence and distribution of various fishes. Still another team conducted the first large-scale systematic study of the feasibility of using different types of material for the construction of artificial reefs, as well as monitoring the biological transition rate of organisms living on the various types of artificial reef material after it was deployed in ocean water. Other biologists set out to more accurately determine the number of recreational anglers that fished in marine and estuarine waters each year and their resulting recreational catch. This last program was expanded in scope and continually improved upon and is carried on today as the NMFS’s nationwide Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). Other programs such as cooperative shark tagging continues today as an example of how fishermen working directly with biologists can be an effective way to help understand the migratory habits of pelagic species which have both national and international implications.
The commitment to establish a nationwide system of sport fish research facilities expanded from Sandy Hook to include others in New England (Narragansett, RI), the Gulf of Mexico (Panama City, FL), and the Pacific Coast (Tiburon, CA). For a decade or so these research facilities flourished, but unfortunately as the federal agencies went through a series of reorganizations , what today is the National Marine Fishery Service was shifted from one department to another and the federal government’s commitment to recreational fisheries became weakened amongst other priorities, or even worse, neglected all together. One by one the sport fish labs were given other responsibility and their original mission became lost - all but Sandy Hook. Now, not only has the NMFS sought to change the mission of the Sandy Hook Lab, but, under its most recent proposal, to eliminate it entirely as a cost saving measure!
This decision is made under the umbrella of budget requirements to cut federal costs yet maintain key priorities. The NMFS contends that this closure meets its core mission priority by supplying the science that informs management decisions and reflects long term investment in scientific capacity. This was one of the principal reasons for the establishment of the Lab to begin with, but now this philosophy is being used as justification for its closure.
The great irony of the decision to close the Lab is the commitment by the Administrator of NOAA, the parent agency of NMFS, made several years ago that much more attention needed to be given to recreational fishing. Holding to that commitment, she had her agency organize a national symposium where recreational groups could voice their views as to what is needed to be done for recreational fishing. She has continued to honor that commitment and organized an advisory group to help NMFS develop a recreational fishery plan of action for each region of the country as well as have each of the regional offices assign a fulltime recreational fishery coordinator to make certain the action plans are carried out. During the same time that these action plans were being developed, NMFS was working to improve the accuracy and timeliness of the recreational catch and effort data that was collected nationwide. It appears that the commitment made by NMFS to expand programs directly related to recreational fishing has not been communicated to those in the agency who propose to close Sandy Hook.
Almost as soon as the Fiscal Year 2013 Budget was released and which included the closure of Sandy Hook, Senators Lautenberg and Menendez and Congressman Pallone sent a letter to President Obama indicating they will work to prevent such a closure during the upcoming appropriations process. JCAA will work in any way it can with our legislators to maintain the Laboratory. We encourage all fishermen to do the same.