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NJ FOR-HIRE FISHING & BOAT RENTALS REOPEN!

During his daily COVID-19 press briefing on May 16, 2020, NJ Governor Phil Murphy announced that charter and head boats would be allowed to set sail with passengers again as of Sunday, May 17, and that state boat rental operations may reopen.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  May 16, 2020
NJ FOR-HIRE FISHING & BOAT RENTALS REOPEN!
While for-hire boats were not operational for the first two days of New Jersey's black sea bass season, as of Sunday, May 17 the charter and party boat action continues in the Garden State.

(Story updated at 5:39 p.m. with governor's executive order.)

Let my people fish!

Those are essentially the words of New Jersey governor Phil Murphy who today announced that recreational headboat and charter fishing is officially underway again in the Garden State as of Sunday!

“Today I am proud that we’re able to announce that in addition to enjoying our beaches, our shore-goers will also be able to enjoy some time on the water as well,” the governor announced in his opening remarks, adding “Today I am signing an executive order that will allow fishing charters and other chartered boat services and watercraft rentals to resume effective at 6 a.m. tomorrow, May 17."

In his Saturday briefing, Gov. Murphy said requirements on the for-hire and rental businesses would include specific social distancing and sanitation measures, including online or telephone payment systems to further lesson direct person-to-person contact. Customer logs will also have be maintained by businesses for the purpose of contact tracing, should that be required.

“For the purposes of today our charter boat captains and watercraft rental businesses can begin preparing their vessels for folks starting tomorrow morning,” Gov. Murphy added.

Earlier in the week the governor teased the announcement during a couple of his daily briefings, saying on Friday “We still owe you protocols on pools (and) charter fishing which I hope will be coming, both soon.” Those “protocols” for the for-hire community developed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and its Division of Fish & Wildlife (Division) are based in large part on a proposal sent to the governor’s office on April 28 by the United Boatmen of New Jersey (United Boatmen) and the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) in hopes of facilitating the safe and successful reopening of for-hire fishing business during the COVID-19 crisis.

Measures in the United Boatmen/RFA proposal included 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.

“I know a lot of people were frustrated with the administration, but these are unprecedented times,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. “The governor was being very cautious with the pandemic, however, he took our well-planned, well-thought proposal and put it forward for Sunday, and for that we’re grateful.

“We’re very thankful for Governor Murphy and his staff, as well as NJDEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe and Assistant Commissioner Ray Bukowski for seeing this through,” Donofrio said, adding “Thanks too to Peter Clarke and the rest of the Division of Fish and Wildlife staff for putting so much work into these protocols to get our boats sailing again.”

“On behalf of United Boatmen of New Jersey, RFA and all of the for-hire industry, we would like thank Gov. Murphy and staff for working with us to get everyone back in business,” said Capt. Bob Rush of Starfish Boats and the United Boatmen. “Many people have worked very hard to get to this point and we thank everyone in helping. Now let’s go fishing.”

Members of the recreational fishing industry worked hard for several weeks on the effort to get for-hire folks back in business, and according to Ray Bogan, legal council for RFA and United Boatmen, there were many valuable players who helped push the ball over the goal line. “Guys like Eddie Kirschenbaum (Business Administrator for the town of Belmar) who was an important advocate on behalf of the for-hire industry,” Bogan said.

While recreational fishing advocates were thrilled by the governor’s announcement, the final protocols and guidelines contained within the governor’s executive order were not immediately available (*at 5:30 p.m. The Fisherman received a copy of the governor's executive order which caps vessel capacity at just 10 persons, posing a serious strain on New Jersey party boat operations.)

The governor’s Saturday announcement comes two days after a meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council) via webinar; although there were seemingly no immediate actions taken that would immediately impact recreational fishermen, the Council did approve supporting the UBNJ/RFA letter - with the Council’s signature – in an effort to reopen the for-hire community based on a social distancing formula outlined by the organizations.

During their May 14 webinar, Council also unanimously voted to maintain “status quo” start dates for all recreational sectors. That vote was vote was related to a separate discussion by members of the Council’s Black Sea Bass and Summer Flounder Advisory Committee (Advisory Committee) on potentially suspending the start dates of black sea bass and summer flounder due to the COVID-19 restrictions in place at the start of each respective season. The concept of doing so could allow the state to extending those seasons at a later point in the season.

However, Council agreed that the best approach was another idea discussed at the Advisory Committee, what Council Chairman Dick Herb referred to as a “bird in hand” approach. In other words, the Council agreed to start the black sea bass and summer flounder seasons as scheduled, while tasking the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Administration with working with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to “develop a methodology to estimate lost opportunity and possible season adjustments” at a point later in the season.

Adam Nowalsky, a representative for New Jersey at both the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, cautioned the Council and members of the public however to be wary of any future data derived from the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) which is used by the fisheries service to monitor effort and harvest in the recreational community. “I don’t think there’s any guarantee, and we’ve seen it enough times, that the catch estimates that we get from fisheries management are going to go the direction we think they’re going to go, that is that these spring fisheries were significantly lower than we expected,” Nowalsky said by phone.

Nowalsky pointed out that additional information had come to light since the Advisory Committee first met that could be of concern, specifically the state of New Jersey shutting down dockside intercepts that would help generate recreational catch estimates, while other states continued to interview anglers due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. “When we had the Committee meeting I think we were under the belief that all of the Mid-Atlantic States were shut down,” Nowalsky said, adding “We’ve since learned that the state of Rhode Island did not shut down their dockside intercepts.”

According to Nowalsky, the state of Rhode Island has continued surveying anglers at the docks and has conducted some of the highest hit rates – or highest number of interviews – in recent statistical reporting. “Not necessarily that the catches were very high reported by those interviews but there were a very high number of interviews that were successfully conducted, meaning that interviewers found a number of people to interview for their purposes,” Nowalsky said.

“There’s no guarantee about what that may indicate with regards to effort, but I think that that piece of information, which is also somewhat corroborated by the fact that Maryland, prior to shutting down their dockside intercepts were also seeing a very high rate,” he added. This data, while designed to monitor the actual catch and not angler effort, could potentially be used by NOAA Fisheries and fisheries managers that participation rates were rosier than one would presume.

For private anglers anxious to get on the wrecks and reefs sea bass, or summer flounder action in the back bays, keeping the established start dates was a good thing. “I would just like to commend the Committee for coming up with a reasonable solution to the flounder and getting it open on the scheduled date,” said Bill “Bucktail Willie” Shillingford, while encouraging the Council to consider setting separate regulations based on different regions of the state.

“There’s been a tremendous number of flounder already caught and released down here in Cape May County on the days that you can fish, when you had a decent day to fish, the guys I know were catching some really nice flounder, and that’s been since the middle of April,” Shillingford said. In discussing the concept of “splitting the state” by region for summer flounder regulations, Shillingford added, “I know the North Jersey guys, you know they have a lot longer season, but down here when you get into July all you’re getting are throwbacks.”

Chairman Herb said that concept was one the Council had originally planned to address more in 2020, explaining that more research would be done on the idea for the future.