The New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (Council) met on Thursday, January 6th. An enforcement update from Captain Jason Snellbaker with the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife’s (NJDFW) Bureau of Law Enforcement got the meeting underway with plenty of fireworks, as he showed off a disturbing photo of an illegal striped bass harvest along the Raritan bayshore.
“We issued over 200 summonses in one month on Raritan Bay,” Capt. Snellbaker said, adding that his enforcement officers said they had never seen such egregious violations “some having 20 more (stripers) at a time.”
In response, Council Chairman Dick Herb suggested that perhaps a saltwater fishing license would help. “You know, we’re one of the few states without it, and I know heading down to Florida you just don’t pull stuff down here,” Herb said during the virtual meeting (when Capt. Herb said “down here” it’s reasonably safe to assume he was chairing the virtual hearing from somewhere in Florida).
“Can we take away their current permit,” asked Council member Dr. Eleanor Bochenek referring to the saltwater registry requirement. “I mean they have to get that card and it sounds like most of them didn’t even have that,” Bochenek added.
“If you want me to go down that rabbit hole with you I’ll go down that rabbit hole with you,” Capt. Snellbaker responded.
“No I’m asking you a question Jason,” Bochenek cut him off. “I don’t know what rabbit hole you’re jumping down but I’m not interested in a rabbit hole,” she added before her screen went blank.
Dr. Bochenek left the virtual Council meeting at that point, and the ensuing striped bass discussion turned into a debate over saltwater licensing, recreational accountability and how to deal with what appears to be organized criminal activity along the Raritan bayshore between Perth Amboy and Union Beach with potentially thousands of pounds of illegal, unreported and unregulated commercial poaching of striped bass for markets unknown by enforcement.
One possible solution, outside of a saltwater fishing license? A closure of the Raritan Bay striped bass fishery was also suggested. Since these “nuclear” options require a lot of additional space and reporting, plan to see that summary coming in the March edition of The Fisherman Magazine.
Dr. Bochenek is designated as a “public” appointee to the Council; she’s one of two “public” members of the Council as set by state statute. According to that legally binding statute, the Marine Fisheries Council should consist of eleven members, nine of whom shall be appointed by the Governor of New Jersey with the advice and consent of the New Jersey Senate. “The nine Governor-appointed members include four members representing interests of sports fishermen, two active commercial fin-fishermen, one active fish processor, and two members representing the general public,” the official administrative guidelines state.
However, the Council is short two representatives, one being the second “public” member and the other vacant seat – that of “sport fishermen” – has been empty since Sergio Radossi stepped down back in 2020.
Following 2-1/2 hours of often disjointed discussion – including several verbal attacks on recreational fishermen by “fish processor” Jeff Kaelin – I was able ask Council and NJDFW staff during the public comment period when we might expect to see these empty seats filled?
“To my knowledge we haven’t gotten anyone who has volunteered to do it,” said Jeff Brust, Chief at the Bureau of Marine Fisheries in New Jersey.
When asked if there were names being reviewed presently inside bureaucratic channels Brust said, “not that I’m aware of.”
“It’s not something that Council or staff does,” Brust said, explaining that those interested would have to submit an official application through the governor’s office. “The governor appoints them, with senate approval,” he explained.
When asked about Greg Hueth – who had appeared on camera with other council members at the March 4, 2021 New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council meeting webinar -Brust said that was in error. “That was a mix up with getting the meeting notification out,” Brust said, explaining that Hueth showed up in the webinar on-camera with other council members by mistake. “He showed up under someone else’s name,” Brust said, adding “I promoted him to share his video without knowing.”
“I’ve had some offline conversations with folks who mentioned that they’re interested, but I’m certainly not the one that the governor’s office calls to say ‘hey we have a volunteer’,” Brust said adding that he would follow up on the matter in Trenton.
Sources in Trenton told me on Friday morning – following the online circus event the night before – that they recall seeing Hueth’s nomination package to represent “sports fishermen” somewhere along the bureaucratic channels, and they pledged to check with the Governor’s “appointments” person on the status of that package.
In recent weeks, several readers have contacted me about coming in from ocean waters with legally harvest striped bass onboard, wondering what happens should they get boarded somewhere in between the inlet and their dock. As I noted, on page 14 of the 2021 Marine Fisheries Digest, it says “no person shall take, attempt to take, or have in possession any striped bass” from back bay waters in January and February.
So how does one get from ocean to bay with a striper in the box?
“To answer your question, if you’re out front and you’re coming back in, you shouldn’t stop to fish in the back bay,” said Capt. Snellbaker, adding “As long as you’re transiting from the ocean directly to your dock you’re fine.”
And of course, I also asked my regular Council question about separating “speckled trout” from the state definition of weakfish. Despite weakfish and speckled trout being two different and unique species, the NJDFW treats both fish the same way under weakfish regulations. For reference sake, Delaware has no bag limit and a 12-inch size limit on speckled (spotted) sea trout, while New Jersey treats that species the same as weakfish with one fish at 13 inches
“That is in the next package we’re working on,” Brust said.
You have to wonder if there’s an office in Trenton where one goes to look for missing packages.