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NJ GOV. INCREASES HEADBOAT CAPACITY TO 25

During his daily press briefing on May 22, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy announced that headboats in the state could carry up to 25 people onboard, effective immediately.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  May 22, 2020
NJ GOV. INCREASES HEADBOAT CAPACITY TO 25
Patrons aboard New Jersey headboats like the Carolyn Ann III out of Barnegat Light looking for sea bass, ling and now summer flounder must adhere to the state's social distancing guidelines and don mask while onboard.

The Memorial Day Weekend “party” got off to a great start today as New Jersey governor Phil Murphy announced during his daily press briefing that he was loosening restrictions on the number of people allowed at outdoor gatherings and certain outdoor activities, including party boat fishing.

Just after 11 a.m., the governor said that New Jersey’s headboats could carry up to 25 persons, which offers captains and crews aboard the larger Coast Guard inspected vessels a chance to sail with enough patrons onboard to make financial sense.

The governor’s decision comes less than a week after his announcement that charter boats could begin sailing again as of May 17 with up to 10 passengers.

Passengers looking to fish with either a charter or headboat this weekend will need to adhere to certain policies established by the governor’s office due to the COVID-19 crisis, including social distancing measures on the vessels and in waiting and boarding areas, as well as the wearing of masks while aboard the vessel.

The governor’s order also prohibits sharing of fishing equipment, bait, and gear, limiting the use of nets or gaffs to the crew, and strict infection control and hygiene practices carried out by the captain and crew. Those looking to climb aboard a for-hire boat to fish will be required to pay by credit card via telephone or electronic reservation to reduce elements of human contact.

In light of the recent announcement allowing limited resumption of for-hire vessel businesses and boat rentals in New Jersey, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) and its New Jersey Chapter (RFA-NJ) took a moment before the Memorial Day weekend to thank the many groups and individuals that have worked tirelessly in recent weeks to provide for this opportunity.

“RFA and the RFA-NJ expresses gratitude to Governor Murphy and his staff for the time spent on consideration of proposals put forth by industry, and for ultimately making the decision to let the for-hire vessels get back on the water,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio.

“A big thanks for the support by Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe and Assistant Commissioner Ray Bukowski, and of course the great staff at the Marine Fisheries Administration and Bureau of Marine Fisheries for the heavy lift,” said RFA-NJ acting chairman Capt. Adam Nowalsky.

The opening came just in time for the fluke opener in New Jersey on May 22. According to a press release from the RFA, the resumption of fishing opportunity for the angling public that relies on the charter boat fleet and liveries to get them on the fishing grounds will help aid the much needed economic recovery of all aspects of the recreational fishing industry, including bait and tackle shops that have been operating under curbside pickup.

RFA and United Boatmen of New Jersey had sent proposals outlining revised operating conditions to ensure the safety of passengers and crew, including limited capacity, use of personal protective equipment, social distancing and enhanced cleaning and sanitation; a similar proposal was provided by RFA and the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey for boat liveries. However, the initial announcement by the Governor on May 16 initially limited all for-hire vessels to a maximum of 10 passengers, despite the fact that many of the large Coast Guard inspected vessels upwards of 100 feet in length having the capacity to carry 100 or more.

In the days since that announcement, the RFA team - including the organization’s general counsel Ray Bogan and United Boatmen of New Jersey President Capt. Bob Rush - went to great effort to explain to the governor and his staff how inspected charter and head boats operate, and what type of measures could be implemented to follow government guidelines to ensuring safety of both passengers and crew while having more than 10 passengers onboard.

Recognizing the ability of those vessels to operate safely, the number was increased to a maximum capacity of 25 by the governor in his May 22 press briefing, effective immediately. "This is a substantial change and we're very appreciative of the Governor for hearing us out. This at least allows the boats to earn a livelihood," Bogan told the Asbury Park Press on Friday, explaining how the 25-passenger limit will keep boats from having to raise fares, which he said their many of their customers wouldn't be able to afford.

"The negotiations to increase inspected vessel capacity were very complicated in the context of the coronavirus pandemic," said Donofrio. “RFA and our New Jersey state chapter has to give thanks to all the legislators, their staff and other groups that were involved in the discussions with the governor's office to reopen industry since for-hire vessels were shut down early in the crisis, with a special thanks to all those that have redoubled their efforts in the past week.”

“At the end of the day, this was a state decision, but it couldn’t have been done without support and advocacy at the federal level by Congressmen Frank Pallone and Chris Smith who dug in to the details on a daily basis with the governor’s staff,” Donofrio said, adding “and we also thank our U.S. senators in New Jersey, Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, for their support letters sent to the governor’s office.”

“New Jersey’s for-hire community offers thanks to state senators Chris Connors and Michael Testa, along with Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, and our congressman in South Jersey, Jeff Van Drew, for their efforts in getting us back to fishing, not to mention their ongoing support of the New Jersey recreational fishing industry and anglers,” said Capt. Bob Rush on behalf of the United Boatmen of New Jersey.

“This has been a difficult time for many of our citizens, both physically and economically,” added Capt. Nowalsky. “We thank the Murphy Administration for today’s announcement of expanded capacity, as recreational fishing is a tremendous economic driver for our state. RFA-NJ wishes all the angling public a safe 2020 fishing season and reminds fishermen, captains and crew of the importance of following safety guidelines to mitigate the health threat to the public.”