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NOAA Fisheries has officially designated 13 New Jersey artificial reef sites as special management zones where fixed commercial gear can no longer be deployed.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  July 8, 2018
After NJDEP settled the fixed gear commercial vs. recreational conflict at Sandy Hook and Axel Carlson reef sites in 2015, NOAA Fisheries has finally found in favor of anglers at the other 13 New Jersey reef sites sitting in federal waters.

As of August 8, only fishing by handline, rod and reel, or spear fishing (including the taking of fish by hand) will be allowed at reef sites off the Jersey Coast resting in federal waters. That means the pots will officially be off the reefs!

In announcing the final rule to designate 13 New Jersey artificial reef sites as special year-round management zones, NOAA Fisheries has given vessels notice that all pot/trap gear must be removed from these reef sites prior August 8.

The federal decision ends a long and contentious debate over gear conflicts along New Jersey’s artificial reef complex. In November of 2015, the Christie Administration adopted new rules implementing a compromise between recreational and commercial fishing interests over access to artificial reefs off the coast of New Jersey, allowing commercial fishermen to continue using small portions of two existing reefs in state waters, Sandy Hook and Axel Carlson reef sites for setting fixed gear.

Soon after the state’s decision on the two reefs inside 3 miles, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) requested that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) designate 13 artificial reef sites, currently permitted in Federal water by the U.S. Corps of Engineers (COE), as special management zones (SMZ) under the black sea bass provisions of the Council's Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan (FMP).

The request specifically noted complaints that NJDEP had received from rod and reel anglers regarding fouling of their fishing gear on commercial pots/traps and lines on ocean reef sites for more than 20 years. The “Pots Off Reef” debate heated up in 2012 with legislation to ban fixed gear at the reef sites; bills in the Trenton statehouse eventually stalled before the Christie administration brokered a compromise between the recreational and commercial sectors in late 2015.

In their appeal to the Council, NJDEP noted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Sportfish Restoration Program, one of the primary funding sources of the New Jersey Reef Program, had discontinued its funding of the program and all reef construction and monitoring activities until the gear conflicts are resolved.

On December 21, 2016, the Council recommended that NMFS designate all 13 artificial reefs as SMZs through a regulatory amendment. This action approves and implements the Council's recommended measures that apply in the Federal waters of the EEZ and to all vessels: Within the established areas of the SMZs, all vessels are only allowed to conduct fishing by handline, rod and reel, or spear fishing; all pot/trap gear must be removed from these reef sites by August 8, 2018.

The boundaries of the SMZs artificial reef sites encompass 19.71 square nautical miles and are in Federal waters.

The NJDEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife holds permits for 15 artificial reef sites – 13 in federal waters and two in state waters. The reefs, encompassing a total of 25 square miles of ocean floor, are constructed from a variety of materials, such as rocks, concrete and steel, even old ships and barges. These materials provide surfaces for a wide diversity of marine organisms to grow, providing food and habitat for many species of fish and shellfish.

See detailed maps for coordinates and descriptions of each site.