By Frank Richetti
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association May 2000 Newsletter)Jersey Coast Anglers Association has been working on menhaden protection issues for a long time, dating back to the early 80s when the large reduction boats came up from Virginia and North Carolina and swept our beaches clean. At that time they could come in as close to the beach as they wanted to. When they took the bait, the bass and bluefish had no reason to hang around so the fall run was over in mid-October. It took many years but by 1988 we were successful in establishing a buffer zone from the shore. Large reduction boats had to be at least 1.2 nautical miles from the beach. The smaller bait boats could fish from 0.6 miles in Raritan/Sandy Hook bay and the bait boats could fish as close as 0.3 nautical miles of the shore.
These zones did minimize the conflict for many years, but the bait industry grew from just one or two boats landing about a million pounds a year in 1988 to the current level of over 30 boats with permits and landings of around 30 million pounds annually. In the meantime the reduction boats were free to work the state waters from 1.2 miles on out with no restrictions on catch. The reduction catch varies widely from a low of 28 million pounds to a high of 119 million pounds and an average of 75 million pounds for the years 1989 through 1996. The reduction boats do not land their fish in New Jersey; they steam back to their home port in Reedsville,VA for processing. They provide no benefit for folks in our state. They produce no jobs. They only pay a few hundred dollars in permit fees.
In 1995 the bait and reduction boats had their highest year. Bait boats landed 35 million pounds and reduction boats caught 119 million, for a combined total catch of 154 million pounds of bunker. That is a lot of forage fish stripped from our state waters.
Now add into this equation the rebounding striped bass and weakfish populations that depend in large part on the bunker for forage. Also add in the rekindled interest of recreational anglers who fish for striped bass and you are bound to have some conflicts surrounding the harvest of a prime bait fish. There have been conflicts in Raritan/Sandyhook bay for the past few years because the bait boats were working close to shore and in shallow areas.
At the end of 1999 in the Raritan/Sandy Hook bay, the zone for menhaden bait boats was moved from 0.3 nautical miles to 0.6 nautical miles. This makes the buffer zone consistent throughout the state and will help minimize area conflicts within the Raritan system, but it does not address the larger potential problem. That problem is protecting the forage base for the recovering striped bass, weakfish and bluefish populations.
There is no restriction on the amount of bunker that can be caught. The reduction boats have only fished our water lightly for the past few years, 24 million pounds in 1997 & 12 million in 1998, but the potential for them to come up and intensively work our local waters and push the combined catch to over 100 million pounds is very real. Right now there is nothing in place to stop that from happening!
That could change at the next NJ Marine Fisheries Council meeting on May 4th. This council sets the fishing regulations within NJ. At the March 2nd meeting council member Gary Dickerson, a recreational representative, made a motion to "not allow the harvest of menhaden within state waters for the purpose of reduction." The motion was tabled until the May meeting so that all council members could study the situation and make an informed decision. I am sure that there will be a lot of discussion around this proposal. I am also sure that the Reduction interests will try to block or defeat this proposal. It is critical that we have a good representation of recreational anglers at this meeting to support the council members who are working on our behalf. Send someone from your club. Feel free to contact me for more information or for directions to the next council meeting.
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