For centuries, communities have used artificial fish structures, called artificial reefs, to reconstruct lost marine environments and increase local fish populations. In recent years, one of the best artificial reef systems has emerged off the coast of New Jersey, where state officials have dumped everything from “reef balls” made by prisoners to surplus U.S. army tanks. These items have created an artificial fish habitat in areas devoid of structure and helped increase the number of fish accordingly. However, controversy has emerged as recreational and commercial fishermen have debated who has the right to fish near these artificial fish structures. Now, New Jersey officials have proposed formal rules that would regulate use of the underwater objects.
New Jersey is one of the few states that has allowed commercial fishing interests to place “pots”–or commercial-grade crab, lobster and shellfish traps–at artificial reef sites, which are otherwise used by recreational fishermen. Commercial groups argued that this allowance was in accordance with their support for the sites’ construction. Meanwhile, recreational anglers pointed out that their fishing equipment and marine fuel is taxed to fund the construction of the fish habitat structures. Further complicating issues, the federal government began withholding $250,000 in yearly funding after expressing concerns that recreational fishermen were being denied reef access.
As a result, commercial and recreational fishing groups reached a compromise in 2013, which allowed both groups utilizing lobster, fish and conch pots to continue using portions of the Sandy Hook and Axel Carlson reef in reserved zones. Hook-and-line fishermen would continue to have access to all areas of the reefs, including the reserved zones.
Now, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has announced that it will work with the federal Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to create a Special Management Zone certification, which would allow their agency to prohibit commercial gear on all 13 artificial reefs in federal waters. This would reinforce the original compromise, as the Sandy Hook and Axel Carlson reefs are the only two artificial fish structures off the coast of New Jersey that are located in state, not federal waters. State waters are defined as the area from the beach to three miles offshore.
The DEP has also announced that commercial and recreational lobster potters fishing in the full access zones must only do so between the hours of sunrise and sunset, and would be required to call the Marine Law Enforcement Headquarters two hours before starting. Individual traps set in the zones must be market with a buoy, and a string of pots must have a buoy at both ends.
The plan was designed to resolve federal concerns about the use of the reefs, which are funded by taxes on recreational fishing tools. Costs to obtain, clean and deploy suitable material, however, is supported by private donations. However, to ease dissatisfaction, New Jersey will construct another artificial reef off the coast.