It’s been a rather rocky start to the New Year for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). In a December 28 press release, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced a significant staff reorganization plan moving Dave Chanda from his position as DFW Director to a new special assignment as Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant Commissioner. “His role is to identify and develop revenue opportunities to support the operations and research responsibilities of the Division of Fish & Wildlife,” the release stated of Chanda’s new role.
Some believe that “revenue opportunities” is code for a saltwater fishing license, but I’ve been told that’s simply not the case; that of course would be a pretty daunting task given Governor Chris Christie’s stance on that issue. “Fishing from our shores has been and should remain free to our residents,” the governor said in 2011 after signing the free saltwater fishing registry into law in New Jersey, adding “Some simple pleasures in life should not be subject to a new unfunded federal mandate.’’
The DEP said division veteran Larry Herrighty will take over as new Acting Director of Fish and Wildlife pending recommendation of the New Jersey Fish and Game Council, which by law has final say in the hiring of a new Director. DEP also announced that Dave Golden, former Chief of the Land Management Bureau, will take on the position of Assistant Director of Fish and Wildlife for Operations. Regrettably and perhaps more importantly to saltwater anglers, the DEP has not made any announcements pertaining to critical staffing updates in the DFW’s marine bureau.
Back in November, Brandon Muffley left New Jersey’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries to join the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council as full-time Fisheries Management Specialist, having served capably as Administrator for the Marine Fisheries Administration in New Jersey for a little over three years, following about five years as Bureau Chief. Muffley’s departure leaves big shoes to fill in the marine division, but by no means are they the only the holes to be patched. Pending retirements in 2017 include biologists Russ Allen and Tom Baum, as well as the state’s longtime artificial reef coordinator Hugh Carberry.
I’ve often heard anglers from neighboring states – particularly New Yorkers – griping about how New Jersey always gets better limits and a much-improved artificial reef complex to fish; let me tell you from first-hand experience, these four individuals can take much of the credit for an approachable and proactive approach to state fisheries management and deserve our thanks; former Director Chanda too for that matter!
This spring, the state budget will once again generate headlines in New Jersey, with fisheries advocates hopefully spearheading efforts to increase funding of our marine fisheries. As JCAA’s Tom Fote pointed out to me recently, the Bureau of Marine Fisheries was getting $3.1 million in state appropriations through the DEP budget back in 1981 during the Florio administration, a figure that blossomed to roughly $4 million during McGreevey’s time as governor around 2002. Under the Christie administration, New Jersey’s marine division is getting a scant $1.9 million in annual funding from the DEP budget.
While many viewed the saltwater fishing license vs. free registry debate as long dead, given the reorganization effort at DEP/DFW, it leaves me wondering if perhaps it was only a dormant cancer. Could it be that New Jersey’s saltwater anglers have been shortchanged for the past dozen or so years in an effort to starve the agency and force anglers to accept fiscal responsibility for this state agency? It’s hard to say for sure, but if you don’t believe there’s at least someone inside the current administration wishing for a fishing license then I’ve got a bridge over the Hudson I’d be happy to sell you.
Regardless of your position on that age old debate, it’s high time that New Jersey legislators ensured a specific “line item” in the state budget to fund our Bureau of Marine Fisheries. Hopefully advocates from RFA, JCAA and the Marine Trades Association can work together to successfully press forward with that line-item agenda on behalf of coastal communities. A dozen years is too long to wait for a raise; as our saltwater staffing needs in New Jersey show, we may be running out of time.