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Ironically, public discussion on a proposed National Marine Sanctuary initiative in North Jersey leaves many concerned anglers out in the street, unable to participate
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  March 16, 2016
While Navesink Maritime Heritage Association's Rik van Hemmen outlines his proposal to create a new North Jersey national marine sanctuary in a separate room, dozens of concerned citizens unable to attend the capacity hearing wait upstairs patiently at the Red Bank Library.

With the basement meeting room at the Red Bank Library filled to its 85-person capacity, another two dozen standing at the top of the stairs and more than a hundred turned away at the front door to the library, Rik van Hemmen,

Vice President of the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association, started hearing just how angry fishermen and hunters really are about his plan.

The question now is whether or not van Hemmen was actually listening.

An effort by the Navesink Marine Heritage Association to create what they’ve called a “water-based equivalent of a National Park” to cover Sandy Hook Bay, the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers and their tributaries was met with firm resistance by local fishermen on Wednesday evening as van Hemmen outlined his plans.

About 20 minutes into a slide show presentation showing idyllic scenes of nature and recreational activities from the Navesink River on up above Red Bank into the Swimming River, attendees packed into the library meeting room began to get a little frustrated.

“Why are we doing a tour,” shouted one attendee. “If our time here at the library is limited let’s hear your plan,” came another.

“I’ve prepared this presentation for the general public,” van Hemmen shot back, moving on with the slide show explaining how a new Sandy Hook Bay National Marine Sanctuary would add more than 12,500 acres of public-use parkland to eastern Monmouth County, while extending the federal National Park philosophy “in perpetuity” to these local waters.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about you either,” van Hemmen told the assembled crowd of his plan. “It’s about all of us.”

Not all of “us” in the room of course were very impressed with the presentation.

“We’ve been dealing with these scoundrels for 20 years,” said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), following the presentation. “You’re really stirring a hornet’s nest with this idea.”

Van Hemmen discussed the process by which his future request letter would get sent to the federal government soliciting National Marine Sanctuary designation, similar to what’s occurred with the California coast, Dry Tortugas, and Biscayne Bay in Florida where fishing access has been severely restricted. He then explained that if the Commerce Department likes the final proposal, it will then go to Congress to enact.

“We have enough bureaucracy, we’re not going to have it,” Donofrio responded. “We’ve said all there is to say, it’s not going to happen,” adding that he and other organizations planned to fight the effort at every step.

Last week, Donofrio reached out to New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno about the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association’s initiative, noting that she was “rather surprised that something like this was moving forward without input from the state.”

Van Hemmen responded to that on Wednesday by saying that ultimately it’s not up to the Governor, but instead for the officials in local towns to decide in conjunction with the federal government. “There’s no point in talking to the Lieutenant Governor if the locals don’t want it,” van Hemmen said. He later explained how allowing towns to designate members to an advisory council in charge of the sanctuary may actually be able to override other national, regional and state fisheries regulations.

“Maybe we have a lot of 17-inch stripers, and you might like smaller stripers because they taste better,” van Hemmen said, explaining how the advisory council could get better limits.

Donofrio said later that argument rings historically hollow.

“What we’ve found is the marine sanctuary regulations are more restrictive than those outside the sanctuary,” he said. “And then there will be some activities that will be deemed completely off-limits, so this is a pretty dangerous course that van Hemmen’s association is taking.”

Many members in attendance noted how New Jersey has the strongest environmental regulations in the country, detailing how many local waters are actually cleaner and more vibrant today than they were in the days prior to the Clean Water Act and Magnuson Stevens fisheries act implementation of the 1970’s.

“I don’t see where you’ve presented a pressing need to bring the federal government in to our area,” said Peter Schkeeper, a member of the Hi-Mar Striper Club, referencing Aesop’s fable of the Scorpion and the Frog (where the scorpion ultimately kills both itself and the frog after promising safe crossing over the river, eliciting laughter from the room.)

“We didn’t trust the government in Biscayne Bay, and we didn’t trust the government in the Dry Tortugas,” said Richard Andres of Fair Haven. “We have history here where something like this is formed and our rights are ultimately taken away.”

Van Hemmen described himself as a concerned citizen who has lived in the Shrewsbury, Middletown and Rumson area since 1976. When asked if the non-profit Navesink Maritime Heritage Association or his maritime engineering firm of Martin, Ottaway, van Hemmen & Dolan has any financial stake in this initiative or was receiving funding from a conservation or environmental organization, he said no.

“Quite frankly, the only thing that’s in it for me is the fishermen and the hunters,” van Hemmen said.

“I’ll take you hunting,” came a voice in the back row to more raucous laughter.

Perhaps that summarized the feeling in the room pretty well for those denied entry due to space restrictions.

**UPDATE - MARCH 21, 2016** - Rik van Hemmen AND the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association will be ‘moderating’ a discussion on Wednesday, March 23 beginning at 7 p.m. at Bahrs Landing Restaurant, 1 Bay Avenue in Highlands, NJ. According to the email invitation to “members” of the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association, this ‘round table discussion’ will feature “supporters and questioners from local organizations who have an interest in this subject. According to sources, upon learning of the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association’s agenda for the dinner meeting this week, the owners of Bahr’s Restaurant have cancelled the group’s booking for the room for Wednesday.”