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While charter captains and livery operators were elated by Gov. Murphy’s 1 p.m. announcement on Saturday reopening operations, a 10-person passenger limit included in the final order released later that afternoon left most NJ headboats still tied to the dock on Sunday.

By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  May 17, 2020
News 12 reporter Keith Kocinski interviews mate Chris Bennett of the Norma K III along the Point Pleasant dock on Sunday morning where the boat remained moored due to the 10-person passenger limit requirement in NJ Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order on Saturday.

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

Four hours after delivering good news in his Saturday press briefing that for-hire fishing would return in New Jersey as of May 17, the actual executive order No. 146 released later by the governor’s office did not bode well for headboats looking to sail.

Among the varied policies and protocols to be followed by the state’s for-hire vessel captains and crews under the governor’s Saturday announcement was onboard capacity of no more than 10 people at one time, which effectively shuts down the larger party boats in the Garden State.

“We were really excited about hearing about getting the chance to run our vessels,” said Capt. Bob Bogan of the 90-foot Gambler which runs out of Point Pleasant Beach. He and his crew spent Saturday afternoon cleaning and sanitizing the boat, and marking the rails to accommodate social distancing requirements between passengers.

Capt. Bogan was just applying the finishing touches when he received the bad news about the 10-passenger limit. “I’m doing the very last things to the boat, the final brush, when I got word from United Boatmen. There was nothing else I could do, I pulled the plug.”

Like other larger, inspected passenger vessels in New Jersey that charge anglers per “head” (hence the term headboat), Capt. Bogan needs to carry a minimum number of passengers in the neighborhood of 15 or more depending on the trip to just break even after gas, crew, bait, cleaning/sanitizing the boat, and other expenses. “A big boat like mine, it’s not even worth it to throw the lines off,” Capt. Bogan said.

Organizations which had united efforts to advocate for the recreational for-hire proposal in Trenton, including United Boatmen of New Jersey and Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) at first praised the governor’s 1 p.m. announcement on Saturday, but seemed blindsided by the 10-person vessel limit included in the final executive order later in the afternoon. On Sunday morning, Capt. Bob Rush of the 70-foot Starfish and 55-foot Susan Hudson out of Sea Isle, on behalf of the United Boatmen, said there was a 1 p.m. press briefing planned for Sunday by state legislators hoping to address the situation.

“While we appreciate the governor’s efforts to open the for-hire and charter industry, the limitations that were placed on headboats need to be amended as soon as possible to try to get some order back into our lives and businesses," Capt. Rush said, adding " Without some type of amendment on passenger capacity, these full-time vessel operations will not survive.”

John Depersenaire at the RFA said he was hopeful that the final protocols spelled out in the final order could be amended this week to accommodate the state’s party boat operators in time for the summer flounder opener on Friday. “It’s important to acknowledge on some level that what the governor announced on Saturday is great news for a large portion of our community,” Depersenaire said, adding “We just need to fine-tune it now to add some parity for the larger vessels. We have to remain hopeful, and let’s see if by Monday morning’s start of the work week we’ll have more luck working with the state to address.”

Included in the governor’s final executive order released late Saturday afternoon, charter fishing services and for-hire vessels will be allowed to reopen to the public so long as they adopt policies that include:

• Reduced capacity to no more than 10 people on a vessel at any one time;
• Electronic or telephone reservation and payment systems;
• No make-up or open boat trips;
• Social distancing measures on the vessels and in waiting and boarding areas, including demarcation and signage;
• Prohibiting sharing of fishing equipment, bait, and gear;
• Limiting the use of nets or gaffs to the crew;
• Infection control and hygiene practices;
• Providing sanitization materials to passengers and crew;
• Frequent sanitization of vessel and high-touch areas;
• The crew and passengers must wear a mask while aboard the vessel;
• Prohibiting food and beverage service; and
• Briefing all passengers prior to embarking on social distancing, capacity limits, and hygiene requirements.

The latest order by the governor also allows watercraft rental businesses to reopen so long as they adopt policies consistent with restrictions that apply to retail establishments pursuant to Executive Order No. 142.

“Reopening charter fishing services and watercraft rental businesses restores an extremely important component of our Shore economy,” Gov. Murphy said, adding “The social distancing measures that we are putting in place will ensure that these businesses can sustain themselves while still adhering to public health guidance.”

While many captains and crews were unable to take advantage of sunny skies on Sunday due to confusion surrounding the executive order, NOAA Weather forecasts for the region show a Tropical Storm passing offshore to start the week will impact most everyone’s inshore options with seas expected to build to 9 to 12 feet by Monday night with E/NE winds up to 25 knots and gusting through Thursday night.

Just like the weather, hopefully this too shall pass. And as with everything else related to the COVID-19 crisis and the ever-changing restrictions and protocols since the governor’s original stay at home order on March 21, this remains a developing story.