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Bill Pits Commercial, Recreational Fishers Over Reef Rights

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee today unanimously adopted a bill that would bar commercial fishermen from dropping lobster traps and other fish pots off a pair of artificial reefs. It pits recreational fishermen against the commercial fishing sector.

For the second time in as many legislative sessions, New Jersey commercial fishermen and recreational anglers are battling over who has fishing rights for two artificial reefs created by the state.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee today unanimously adopted a bill that would bar commercial fishermen from dropping lobster traps and other fish pots off a pair of artificial reefs in coastal waters near the New Jersey Shore.

The bill is identical to a measure that won approval from the state Senate last session but died in the Assembly. It pits recreational fishermen against the commercial fishing sector, primarily lobstermen who have taken to trapping in shellfish-rich waters created by the sinking of barges, boats and other debris for reefs.

The lobster traps and other fish pots have long lines that make fishing difficult and that even interfere with boats bringing sporting fishermen to the reefs, locations where state marine fishery officials estimate more than 150 species of fish can be found.

In a recent state survey, more than 60 percent of recreational fishermen said they were having problems with the traps, according to Bill Figley, a former artificial reef coordinator for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Recreational fishing provides a $1 billion annual boost to the state’s economy, and Figley wants to set aside the reefs exclusively for sporting fishermen and divers.

That proposal was bitterly opposed by the state’s small commercial fishing industry, which said high fuel costs and other factors already make it difficult to earn a living, and which resisted calls by some to create its own reefs exclusively for commercial use.

“I’ve been fishing there for 29 years,” Jean Hollerbach of Brielle told lawmakers. “Don’t tell me to start my own reef after I’ve been there for 29 years.’’

But Figley argued the state’s intention in creating the artificial reefs was to build spots that recreational fishermen and divers could use, an effort financed by federal funds allocated specifically for that purpose.

Most of the lobsters taken in New Jersey waters do not come from the artificial reefs, he said, but from other areas, such as the edge of the continental shelf. “I don’t think [the bill] will have any effect on lobster landings in the state,” he said.

Sen. Robert Smith, the Democratic chairman of the committee, agreed with the sporting fishing interests. “We’re supposed to be making sure the public is getting the benefits from the use of public funds,” he said. “This is dedicated money for recreational fishermen. It’s not a close call in my mind.”

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