Striper Wars! Poachers, Police & Public Perspective - The Fisherman

Striper Wars! Poachers, Police & Public Perspective

The March kickoff for NJ stripers coincides with regional management debates and increased state enforcement. 

The post at the New Jersey Conservation Police Officers (CPO) Facebook page at www.facebook.com/NJGAMEWARDENS on February 5 of this year perhaps only scratches the surface of the striped bass debate to come:

“During late November through December, Marine Region CPOs from the entire unit were incredibly busy responding to complaints involving the illegal harvesting of striped bass along the Raritan Bayshore. More than 500 illegal striped bass were seized from fishermen found in violation. CPOs issued more than 200 summonses. Most summonses issued were for undersize fish, however many individuals possessed double digit numbers of fish. Additional summonses issued included possessing overlimit, oversized, and mutilated striped bass as well as failure to obtain a saltwater registry, interference, and littering while fishing. The overwhelming number of violations occurred between Perth Amboy and Union Beach.”

First delivered to the New Jersey Fish and Game Council in December of 2021, Deputy Chief Jason Snellbaker with the Bureau of Law Enforcement delivered the news again at the online meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council) on January 6.  If you saw page 60 of the February edition of The Fisherman, you know about the fireworks that ensued.  In response to Snellbaker’s report, the Council went down a bit of a “rabbit hole” with discussions about saltwater fishing licenses and potential closures along the Raritan Bayshore where the most egregious violations were taking place.

The concept of “time and area” striped bass closures has suddenly become a popular topic of discussion, from the January 6th Council meeting in New Jersey, to the coastwide debate at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) under the new Amendment 7 process.  While one doesn’t necessarily have to do with the other, both should be on anglers’ radar when navigating the coming months of striped bass discussion.

“No Target” Closures

Conservation-Police
Conservation Police Officers issued more than 200 summonses in November and December, primarily between Perth Amboy and Union Beach on the Raritan Bayshore.

On February 4 – one day before the NJ Game Wardens’ Facebook post – ASMFC made public their official document, Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass For Public Comment.  Items within the public document are varied and sometimes confusing – one pertains to management triggers, which essentially are precautionary tripping points; should the spawning stock biomass fall below a certain threshold, if young of the year recruitment numbers fail to reach a certain annual target, or if fishing mortality hits a particular number, it would “trigger” management response in terms of action.

The other perhaps more controversial component of the ASMFC discussion has to do with measures to address recreational release mortality in the striped bass fishery.  There are several options related to reducing the number of striped bass that die when released by anglers, including a prohibition on lethal gear including gaffs, and a suite of potential outreach and education efforts to teach anglers on the intricacies of proper release techniques.

One big debate topic in the release mortality realm of the document pertains to effort controls; in other words, seasonal closures. “Some of the closure options would offer additional benefits to the stock by reducing effort during seasons associated with higher post-release mortality rates or by protecting spawning or pre-spawn fish, which could contribute to stock rebuilding,” the public document states, adding that managers will ultimately have to weigh the cost of limiting access to the fishery with the potential benefit of decreasing recreational release mortality.

“Seasonal closures could be no-harvest closures (i.e., catch and release fishing is allowed) or no-targeting closures (i.e. no person may take, attempt to take, target, or have in possession any striped bass),” the document states.

While a number of anglers who fish for stripers exclusively on a “catch and release only” basis have gone on record to support partial season closures – with groups like Stripers Forever openly supporting a moratorium on striped bass harvest coastwide – as the ASMFC document for public comment states, “the majority of the proposed options are no-targeting closures in order to address recreational releases resulting from both harvest trips and catch-and-release fishing trips.”

In other words, the potential closures would be much like the “no target” prohibition on back bay striper fishing in New Jersey in January and February.

Two Separate Issues

In early February I had a chance to sit down with Deputy Chief Snellbaker and marine fisheries biologist Brendan Harrison to talk striped bass; both stressed that the topic of area closures for stripers related to the Raritan poaching situation and the ASMFC’s ongoing striped bass amendments were unrelated.  “They’re two separate issues,” Harrison said of the closure concept brought up at the January 7th Council meeting, and the ASMFC discussion document.

“In Amendment 7 that option to close the spawning areas is under the section of recreational release mortality, so essentially it’s just to control effort and reduce the number of striped bass that are intercepted by fishing trips,” Harrison said.

While a no-harvest closure would reduce the number of striped bass harvested, ASMFC points to the fact that anglers could shift to catch-and-release fishing, “thereby increasing the number of recreational releases which is counter to the objective of reducing release mortality.”

According to the management data, recreational fishermen are responsible for about 90% of all dead or harvested striped bass, with nearly half of that mortality attributed to fish that die after being set free.  With an estimated 9% mortality rate on released stripers, the 30 million plus striped bass released by anglers every year makes up a large component of the dead bass statistics.

Options included in the public comment document for Amendment 7 include (B1) state-specific two-week closures during times when the striped bass fishery is particularly active in each state; a minimum of 15% reduction in directed striper trips (B1-a) to occur during a wave with at least 15% of the state’s annual striped bass directed trips; and a third option to for 25% (B1-b) of the directed trips.

table
Table 3 from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission indicates that the majority of striped bass trips (41.2%) occur in November and December, with March and April (24.%) coming in second in terms of waves of directed effort.

ASMFC’s Table 3 example shows where New Jersey would qualify for the greatest impact within these options, with 41.1% of the state’s directed striper trips occurring in November and December when the larger poaching busts on Raritan Bay occurred.  The second greatest effort by New Jersey striper fishermen occurs in March and April during the pre-spawn and spawning timeframe for big bass when 24.7% of New Jersey’s annual striped bass trips are done.

But again, as fishermen consider these regional closure concepts in the public comment document, keep in mind that the initiative is meant to address release mortality as much as any actual harvest of fish.

Coastal Enforcement

So, would a two-week closure of striped bass fishing in New Jersey as contained in the ASMFC document make the job of a conservation police officer easier or harder in the Garden State?  “Any time it’s closed it’s a lot easier,” Snellbaker said in reply while using the January and February prohibition of striper fishing in the back bays of New Jersey as an example.  “Right now it’s just a matter of seeing somebody fishing, and you know what they’re fishing for,” Snellbaker said, adding “since it’s closed you’re going to have less people out there fishing in general, so yes it makes it easier.”

The Deputy Chief confirmed that summonses have been issued during the January and February closed striper season on the Raritan in 2022, and conservation police officers in the Marine Fisheries Bureau kept active throughout January and February.  “Normally our officers will go down there and have a conversation them and explain that it’s closed, so anybody that takes a fish, no matter what size it is in violation.”

Jim-Stetler
Jim Stetler caught and released this 45-inch striper on the Delaware River, with help (and photo support) of Tim DeCecco in the spring of 2019. While ASMFC is looking at potential spawning area closures, it’s not clear if the Delaware River (and the April and May closure there) is considered under current ASMFC management “spawning” standards.

As per the statutory pay schedule in the state of New Jersey, the fine for fishing without being registered in the free saltwater angler registry (saltwaterregistry.nj.gov) is $25 for the first offense, $50 for any subsequent offense.  For striped bass, the fine for possession of one undersized or over the limit striped bass is $124, for two it’s $224, while three illegal stripers will cost a scofflaw $324.

And while many law-abiding fishermen would prefer to see greater penalties meted out to poachers and scofflaws, Snellbaker said it’s all really a matter of statute. “We can ask a judge for permanent forfeiture, it has happened, but it’s a whole other process.”

According to the final Marine Fisheries Administration Monthly Report for 2021, there were 143,704 individuals registered in 2021 with the New Jersey Saltwater Recreational Registry Program.  Whether that’s an accurate count or not, it’s down slightly from the 162,500 individuals registered to fish marine waters in New Jersey in 2020.

New Jersey’s marine enforcement division has a staff of 15, meaning there’s one conservation police officer for each 9,580 registered saltwater angler in the state; that’s not counting the 745 for-hire vessels registered to fish with blanket registry coverage for patrons.  In terms of coverage area, the Jersey Shore coastal region comprises of approximately 141 miles.

“We have three regions now with three lieutenants,” Snellbaker said, explaining how the Jersey Shore enforcement responsibilities are broken into north, central and south.  “Up north I have four officers and a lieutenant so that’s five, central I have four officers and a lieutenant that’s another five, and then down south I have three officers and a lieutenant.”  Snellbaker said there’s also a Captain who holds down the fort, handles administrative duties and takes care of assignments.

Ideally, the Deputy Chief would like to see more conservation police officers brought aboard, but finding the ideal candidate is always a difficult prospect.  “Right now the hires that we have onboard right now, the majority of those are inland positions,” Snellbaker said.  “The specific priority we have right now is because of the regions where there are black bears.”

Bear hunting was reintroduced in New Jersey in 2003 to help control the growing bear population, but then in 201 Governor Phil Murphy re-instituted the ban on hunting bears on state lands.  On June 21, 2021, New Jersey’s Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy expired, and as such, there is no black bear hunt anywhere in the state.

However, Deputy Chief Snellbaker called recruitment of new officers “a huge priority” right now, and encouraged those interested in a marine enforcement position to call Marine Enforcement at 609-748-2050 or by visiting the New Jersey Civil Service website at nj.gov/csc.

Back In The Bay

As for those controversial busts on the Raritan, Snellbaker called it “mostly gross recreational violations” rather than any organized “black market” poaching operation; but that’s not to say these striped bass aren’t being sold illegally.  “We have found in a lot of these urban environments it’s not uncommon for people to take fish back to their house and sell it off of their porch, sell it to their neighbors and just make a quick buck from an opportunist’s perspective,” the Deputy Chief said.

“There was one night where a food delivery truck came out, met with a couple of people, took a lot of fish back in the truck, the truck was stopped, and the individual was charged with possession of all those fish,” Snellbaker said, while adding “So based on that, any reasonable person would suspect that they’re going to a restaurant somewhere.”

While there’s certainly a high likelihood that those stripers were sold illegally, Snellbaker said that investigation is still ongoing.  “If my officers, through their investigation or talking to this individual, figure out where this establishment is, we can go to their establishment and conduct a record inspection for what they’re selling,” he said.

“We do have criminalization of wildlife, but again it’s criminal versus civil, and when you throw that stuff into Superior Court somebody could get PTI (pre-trial intervention),” Snellbaker said, explaining how it’s often difficult to get a strong fisheries conviction in the state of New Jersey.  “I have found that money talks,” the Deputy Chief noted, adding “you’re better off monetary than trying to get tied up in court.”

AMENDMENT 7
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has posted Amendment 7 for public comment to extend until April 15. The Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife will hold their public meeting via webinar on Thursday, March 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. For details contact John Clark at 302-739-9108. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection & Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will hold their webinar meeting together on Monday, March 14 from 6 to 8 p.m. For details contact Joe Cimino (NJ) at 609-748-2063 or Kris Kuhn at 814-359-5115 (DE). For a full state-by-state schedule and to download Draft Amendment 7 go to ASFMC.org.

The next meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council is set for March 3, at which point more information on upcoming striped bass hearings – as well as the 2022 regulatory options for summer flounder, black sea bass and porgies – will undoubtedly be addressed.  As for Deputy Chief Snellbaker, his 15-member crew of conservation police officers may get a little extra support this month on the striper grounds, just as those inland bears and coastal striper fishermen are waking up from winter hibernation.

“We’ll be planning multiple operations with multiple officers from inland regions,” he told me.

See something?  Call Operation Game Thief at 855-OGT-TIPS, and by all means, say something.

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