One major issue with conservation enforcement in the state of New Jersey is the simple fact that there are too many other common criminals clogging up our local courts. Think about it; you’re a sitting judge with a full caseload of daily crimes against humanity – theft, assault, DUI, operating a mobile meth lab – when suddenly the prosecutor introduces a case against some guy who caught one too many striped bass and not being registered in the “free” saltwater registry database while he did so.
It’s hard not to become absolutely infuriated when looking at the photo on page 34 of a heaping pile of poached stripers along the Raritan Bayshore. “We issued over 200 summonses in one month on Raritan Bay,” noted Deputy Chief of marine enforcement Jason Snellbaker at the January 6th meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council), explaining how conservation police officers said they’d never seen such egregious violations.
However, what the recreational fishing community sees as an “egregious” assault on a public resource can sometimes be a burden to overworked and world-weary public judges, particularly in more populated urban areas. And rather than prosecuting these fisheries violations to the fullest extent of the law, many of these cases are ultimately plead down to little or nothing, or often simply tossed from a busy courtroom altogether.
So, if we have fish cops, then why don’t we also have fish courts? Imagine if there was a monthly hearing, perhaps every third Wednesday, where folks who are issued citations for undersized fish, possession over the limit, or fishing without a license or registration would go before a judge who only hears these fisheries cases.
I’m sure there’s a pool of retired judges in the state who personally enjoy fishing and hunting who’d be willing to preside over this Fish Court a few times a year. Each of four retired judges for example could get assigned three monthly hearings which rotate throughout the state (near official Division of Fish & Wildlife offices in Port Republic, Green Bank, Assunpink, Pequest, etc.) Since there aren’t any jay walkers, or street walkers, waiting their turn before the judge and filling up the docket, these Fish Court judges could focus all their personalized professional attention on cases pertaining exclusively to fisheries violations.
There’s no way that I’m the first to come up with this idea, and I’m sure that some other state in the country must have something similar! But if New Jersey were to dedicate one courtroom a month to deliberate fisheries violations, I could foresee more resource revenue through conviction returned to Division of Fish & Wildlife, and a stronger message to scofflaws that such “egregious” acts will not be tolerated in the Fish Court.
Up until January’s Council meeting, Deputy Chief Snellbaker would provide a detailed report of his team’s enforcement activities throughout the state; since poorly managed Council meetings have gone off the rails, now lasting well into the night, I doubt we’ll hear these complete reports any longer. It’s sad, as I know a lot of anglers really look forward to the Cops “Bad Boys” portion of the hearing, even if names are rarely shared (before or after prosecution). But I’ll bet having the monthly Fish Court live-streamed to an Internet audience would offer a pretty popular night of programming – the fear of public humiliation alone could act as a deterrence against future infractions.
The cost for not getting your free saltwater registration in the state of New Jersey is a paltry $25. Municipal court judges aren’t just laughing as they dismiss these cases, they’re sometimes admonishing prosecutors for even bringing them to court. So maybe it’s time for Trenton to take our state fisheries more seriously, call in Judge Wapner, and let’s bring New Jersey’s Fish Court into session!