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As each new day arrives, the COVID-19 guidelines change and the restrictions slowly loosened allowing for-hire operations to resume. A state-by-state rundown from Massachusetts to Maryland on charter and headboat fishing.
By Staff  |  May 26, 2020
In New Jersey, headboats like the Jamaica II are back in black sea bass carrying up to 25 persons onboard while requiring passengers to adhere to social distancing guidelines and the donning of face-coverings. Slowly but surely the region is returning to a sense of normalcy, especially with regard to recreational fishing.

When the major fishing shows and expos were cancelled in March, it was probably the moment when the COVID-19 crisis really hit home for most of The Fisherman’s readers and advertisers. If not the shows themselves, it would be the eventual announcement by state governments that business as we knew it was effectively shut down.

Kicking off the month of April, it was nearly impossible to keep track of what was and wasn’t allowed from a state-by-state perspective. “Social distancing” became the new catchphrase for life and how to live it in America, with governors stumbling to justify the case for “essential” and “non-essential” business operations.

Police, paramedics, firefighters, doctors and nurses – the perennial “first-responders” – have always been and always will be essential when the chips were down. Yet, with “stay at home” orders gripping the region, the capable and diligent staff of grocery stores, farms, manufacturing, processing and shipping operations suddenly became the indispensable lifeblood of the communities.

God bless each and every one of you!

But now two months into the crisis, it’s no longer an argument of “who” is essential, but “how” states can essentially reopen local business again for the season. Slowly but surely, we’re moving along the down slope of the pandemic at this point; so long as the “social distancing” norms are followed as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and mandated by state and local governments, we should see some sense of normalcy return.

For many of The Fisherman’s readers, normal is jumping back on a charter or headboat to take advantage of the local fishing opportunities in the region. Pennsylvania was first to reestablish guided fishing in the state effective May 1. While helpful for trout, walleye, and upper Delaware stripers and shad, it took awhile along the coast to start seeing a reopening plan for charter and party boats.

As of Wednesday, June 17, 2020 at 8:15 a.m. this is where we stand from Massachusetts to Maryland in terms of coastal fishing rules and regulations affecting for-hire fishing. Keep in mind that each state has a specific set of guidelines for onboard capacity, social distancing requirements, use of protective face-covering, and the cleaning/sanitizing of the boat.

Effective May 25, Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker’s executive order allows for-hire and charter fishing to resume, restricting onboard capacity to no more than 10 passengers and crew allowed.

Effective June 1, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo has said for-hire fishing will resume, with the onboard capacity for boats less than 25 feet in length at 4 people, and for larger boats determined by formula based on vessel size.

(UPDATED 06/01/20) Effective June 1, the state of Connecticut will allow charter fishing and head/party boats to operate with capacity limits set at one passenger per six feet of rail space. For-hire businesses must self-certify that they are following strict safety guidelines to keep their employees and customers safe through the web portal. The announcement includes Head, Party, and Tour Boats; Charter Fishing; and Sport Fishing.

Effective May 20, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont’s executive order allows charter fishing to resume subject to five passengers. No immediate word from the governor’s office as to when headboat fishing would resume.

“The belief is that by Wednesday boats can be begin sailing under phase one but not clear on the capacities,” said Long Island edition editor Fred Golofaro on Memorial Day, explaining that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is still looking at phased opening statistics for Suffolk and Nassau counties that need to meet a certain threshold for reopening business. A set of Commercial Fishing Services and For-Hire Vessels Guidelines issued by the state noted that no more than the maximum number of people who can safely maintain an appropriate social distance of 6 feet onboard for-hire boats - inclusive of both crew and passengers, unless all are members of the same household – would be allowed.

(UPDATED 06/17/20) On June 17, the NJ Office of Emergency Management is expected to post new regulations online allowing headboat operators to increase onboard capacity. On May 22, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order allowing up 25 persons onboard for-hire vessels in the state. The governor had earlier made an announcement that for-hire operations could resume in New Jersey effective May 17 with a capacity limit of 10 persons; five days later he upped the onboard capacity to 25 in time for New Jersey’s fluke opener heading into the Memorial Day weekend

(UPDATED 05/29/20) Effective 8 a.m. on May 29, Delaware for-hire boats are once again allowed to sail with customers, while following an onboard capacity limit of up to 30% occupancy while ensuring 6 feet radius around individual household units. According to the Delaware state guidelines issued received by The Fisherman on May 29, the state of Delaware also requires staff and guests to undergo health screening based on DPH guidance available.

On May 25, The Fisherman’s Delaware-based field editor Eric Burnley said the governor didn’t seem to be budging on for-hire fishing in the First State. “Delaware Governor John Carney has yet to open the charter and head boat business,” Burnley noted, adding “With New Jersey and Maryland both opening their marine industry it puts Delaware captains in a very bad place losing business to those states.” Over the Memorial Day weekend, Capt. Bob Trowbridge of the Captain’s Lady out of Bowers Beach, DE was stopped twice by Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) police units for running trips. “I’ve been issued a cease and desist, and they didn’t take me away, but they legally arrested me (Saturday) night and now I have to wait for a court appearance,” Capt. Trowbridge told the Delaware State News. “We ran again (Sunday), so they issued me my third and final cease and desist. I have another court appearance (Sunday night).”

Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Eric Buckson who was at the dock when DNREC officials met the boat on Saturday night later posted the following to Facebook: “The captain limited the patrons to less than 20% of the boats assigned capacity, and required temp checks, masks, social distancing, kept folks outside, and cleaned bathrooms hourly (more than the WAWA you and I went into this week)...also, NJ has allowed charter boats to operate...what is the difference? Nothing other than NJ had a charter lobbyist push for an industry and Delaware did not...this is a small industry, but for those in the industry, it is the world to them...who you know matters...only wish I had more juice.”

The latest guidelines effective as of May 15 by way of Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan state that no more than 10 people may be on a boat at one time, including captain and crew, when fishing.

Stay tuned to TheFisherman.com for regular updates on fishing news and information throughout the region, and be sure to sign up for our free eNewsletter to get receive our biweekly email alerts with news, fishing reports and weekend forecasts.