On April 6, the A.C. Press broke the story that bait and tackle shops may operate during the COVID-19 crisis by way of phone orders and curbside delivery. I’d been following this effort quite closely in the days following Governor Phil Murphy’s “stay at home” order on March 21. Without getting confirmation from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) or the governor’s office that following day, John Depersenaire at the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) tracked down a letter from the governor’s office to the office of Sen. Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) confirming that marinas “are not retail so they can continue to operate,” while adding “Bait and tackle shops can do curbside pickup.”
The welcome news came less than a week after NJDEP commissioner Catherine McCabe announced an early opening to the state’s 2020 trout season. “This is to help us, to help you maintain safe, social distance while fishing,” McCabe said during the governor’s daily press briefing March 31, speaking on the importance of “passive recreation” activities like fishing while stressing the need for social distancing. “If you find others gathered at your favorite fishing hole consider trying a new location this year,” McCabe added. In other words, mugging is now a violation of NJDEP guidelines.
Kudos to RFA and their lobbying team in Trenton for working tirelessly to get bait and tackle shops essentially recognized. So long as shops and anglers adhere to strict “social distancing” practices, you can phone in your order and pick up curbside with little to no human interaction. The bad news is the for-hire fleet couldn’t get any help through the pandemic. According to a sheet of frequently asked questions posted online at the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife website on April 2, party and charter boat operators are not allowed to take customers fishing during the COVID-19 crisis.
What many private anglers were perhaps unaware of is that safe-distancing guidelines also restrict their ability to fish with buddies. Consistent with Governor Murphy’s orders on social distancing to limit the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19), we also learned “anglers must fish alone or with immediate family members and cannot fish in groups of any size (no matter how small), either on land or by boat.” Those official state guidelines posted on April 3 also required a minimum 6-foot social distance between anglers at all times, further stating “Anglers must not congregate in parking areas, boat ramps or at popular fishing locations.”
Conservation officers, New Jersey State Park Police, and NJDEP staff have been actively monitoring areas to ensure adherence of the restrictions. In fact, a large gathering on April 5 prompted Keyport town officials to close municipal parking lots while announcing that fishing was no longer permitted on the promenade. The governor in turn officially closed all state and county parks as of 8 p.m. on April 7, with the Fed responding with a Sandy Hook shutdown soon after. It’s as if with every single step forward, we also take two steps back.
Yes, you can fish if you practice social distancing, and you can phone in your bait and tackle order for curbside pick-up. You cannot fish on a charter or head boat, and you can’t fish privately with any of your buddies either, neither by boat nor by beach. You can however also protect our right to fish as a community. What became abundantly clear during the “public health emergency” declaration in place through the early part of May is that ramps, piers, bulkheads, parks and even beaches can assuredly be shut down if strict “social distancing” rules aren’t followed.
The future of safely, sensibly fishing through this and any future crisis ultimately rests on our shoulders in terms of responsible angling. That is to say, fish smart and this too shall pass. Hopefully very soon!