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Days before the black sea bass season opener and two weeks until the Memorial Day Weekend start of New Jersey's fluke fishery, some local business owners are beginning to wonder about the state's big box mentality of picking winners and losers.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  May 11, 2020
From left to right, while donning masks and keeping proper social distance, Capt. Mike Rothman of the Bonanza II joins Sen. Michael Testa, Capt. Bob Rush of Starfish Boats and Capt. Eddie Yates of the Susan Hudson at press conference on May 8 appealing for small business allowances. (See details below on New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council webinar on Thursday, May 14.)

This Friday, May 15, the 2020 black sea bass season officially gets underway in New Jersey (10 fish bag) and Delaware (15 fish bag) with a 12-1/2-inch size limit.

However, even with 6 feet of space between anglers and a commitment to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for cleaning and disinfecting in places of business, there’s been no word yet as to the status of the for-hire or rental boat operations in the region.

On April 28, the United Boatmen of New Jersey (UBNJ) and the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) submitted a detailed proposal to the state of New Jersey in hopes of facilitating the safe and successful reopening of for-hire fishing business during the COVID-19 crisis. Measures included in the proposal sent to New Jersey governor Phil Murphy and State Police Col. Patrick J. Callahan were limits placed on crew and passengers, daily cleaning/disinfecting protocols including frequent cleaning of “high touch” surfaces, use of protective gloves and face gear, daily health monitoring of vessel crew, a restriction on the sharing of fishing equipment, and touchless payment where possible.

While Gov. Murphy told FOX News Channel he would absolutely take the RFA/UBNJ proposal under consideration, there has been no additional information forthcoming from Gov. Murphy’s office.

On May 4, RFA executive director Jim Donofrio and Marine Trades Association of New Jersey (MTA/NJ) executive director Melissa Danko submitted a separate proposal to Gov. Murphy requesting the re-opening of the recreational boat rental and boat livery businesses. “We offer the enclosed protocol and measures specific to the livery industry,” the cosigned letter noted, explaining how the itemized measures would ensure public safety, comply with social distancing guidelines, and keep livery operators and customers safe.

“We respectfully request that this sector of the recreational boating community be opened in this measured and reasonable manner,” the letter stated, adding “Please consider the severe social and economic impacts that closures have had on this business, and the lost opportunities for families and small groups of friends. In order to responsibly address the concerns associated with exposure to the COVID-19 virus, our proposal seeks a measured and cautious reopening, which incorporates protective measures for those who have historically sought to enjoy the marine environment on these rental boats.”

An industry guide to operating safely, assembled in collaboration with numerous MTA/NJ partners.

While many recreational fishing industry owners at the Jersey Shore are actively taking reservations in advance of the May 15 black sea bass and May 22 summer flounder openers, there’s been no response back from the governor’s office, the New Jersey State Police or the Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). While compiling fishing reports for this week’s New Jersey, Delaware Bay edition of The Fisherman Magazine, many for-hire captains stressed the need for answers.

“All our hopes are on a mid-month opener,” said Capt. Peter Sykes of the Parker Pete out of Belmar in the North Jersey region.

“Let’s give it a few more days and see if the Governor will lift the ban on party boats, and allow us to sail,” noted Gina Lawrenson aboard the Carolyn Ann III out of the Central Jersey port of Barnegat Light. “We need to sail as badly as you want to go fishing, so let’s see what happens in the next few days.”

Meanwhile in Cape May County where charter and party boats would ordinarily be sailing every single day this month for black drum, small business owners are struggling to understand how some businesses in New Jersey are allowed to operate, and others are not.

“I’m all for making sure that everybody is healthy, health is number one, but also, in turn, people have to work, people have to be able to pay their bills,” said Capt. Bob Rush of Starfish Boats out of Sea Isle City in a recent interview with Breitbart News. “And with everything shut down like this…I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life and I never want to see it again,” he added.

Capt. Rush joined fellow party boat skippers Eddie Yates of the Susan Hudson and Mike Rothman of the Bonanza II – donning masks in socially distant fashion - at a Friday press conference in Cape May Court House in an appeal for small business operators. Organized by the first legislative district team of Sen. Michael Testa and his Assembly colleagues Assemblymen Erik Simonsen and Antwan McClellan, the event was held at the still shuttered Coho Brewery, across the street from a bustling Home Depot location.

“Small shops and eateries are locked up tight. Most establishments down the shore are family-owned, multi-generational businesses,” said Testa. “Many of these are capable and willing to reopen while abiding by CDC guidelines, but as the shutdown goes on, it has the potential to have a multi-year impact that devastates the shore economy.”

Sen. Testa criticized the Murphy Administration’s lack of any concrete plans to loosen shutdown orders and allow small businesses to operate.

“Big Box stores like Home Depot and Walmart are open for business,” Sen. Testa said, adding “Dozens and dozens of people can walk in, cruise the aisles, fill their carts, and check out, yet small retailers, the mom and pop businesses that are the very lifeblood of our local economies are prevented from opening their doors to sell the same items.”

While not able to attend the May 8 press conference, the U.S. Congressman from Cape May County, Rep. Jeff Van Dew, said South Jersey families and businesses just want to get people back to work. “Feeding your family is the most essential thing anyone can do. We can implement the proper protocols to keep everyone safe while also balancing the need to expand what is working to get people back in their jobs.”

Adding to the confusion of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been the dissemination of somewhat incomplete and/or conflicting information from various state sources. While Gov. Murphy’s stay-at-home order said “Delivery and online operations of retail businesses may continue” for New Jersey businesses not tagged as essential, a May 5 order from the New Jersey State Police to local municipalities about non-essential businesses gave no such indication of how businesses like a bait and tackle shop could continue to take phone orders and deliver product through touchless payment to the curb. At least two Cape May County bait and tackle shops were temporarily shuttered for a few hours last week by local police until the issue was straightened out.

As reported previously at TheFisherman.com by way of Sen. Chris Brown’s office in Atlantic County and through Assemblyman John Catalano of Ocean County, Gov. Murphy’s office has confirmed for state legislators that "curbside" bait and tackle delivery is allowed, similar to what the governor has more openly acknowledged for takeout food and big box stores where curbside delivery has been a boon for corporate business.

With less than two weeks to go before the Memorial Day weekend at the Jersey Shore, those separate rules for separate businesses has not been lost on everyone in the state capital.

“We trust our local businesses and no matter how we move forward we are going to have to trust our small businesses,” said Assemblyman Simonsen last Friday in Cape May Court House. “The Governor should trust the small Shore businesses the same way the Governor is trusting our big businesses to carry out guidelines to keep ensure the safety of their customers.”

Or as one Jersey Shore captain has said of late, “Let 'em sail before they sink.”

On Thursday, May 14, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council will meet via webinar; there is no "dial in" option and attendance is limited to 500 online participants. Registration is required; after registering, you will receive a confirmation e-mail with information about joining the webinar. The meeting "room" will open at 4 p.m. to allow attendees to test their connection and audio, but the meeting does not start until 5 p.m. Click here to register for the May 14 webinar.