Commercial fishermen off the coast of New Jersey will be able to continue to access portions of two artificial reefs, and a new reef is to be constructed for the exclusive use of recreational fishing, under regulations announced Wednesday by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
New Jersey has a long-established history of using everything from old trains and buses to parts of old amusement piers from the Atlantic City Boardwalk to build reefs to create habitats for marine species off the coast.
The state Division of Fish and Wildlife holds permits for 15 artificial-reef sites - with 13 of them in federal waters and two in state waters. In total, the reefs encompass about 25 square miles of ocean floor. Most are located within 10 miles of the shoreline.
Artificial reefs were first constructed offshore more than 20 years ago to help offset the decline of the fish population due to overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction. Critics have long derided the "any junk will do" concept of the reef system, saying it is an ill-conceived idea that further pollutes the ocean.
The Christie administration said the new plan is a compromise between commercial fishing interests and sport fishermen - two industries that provide about $2.5 billion a year to the state, according to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.
Martin said in a statement that the state is "committed to supporting healthy and vibrant industries that are vital to the economy."
Under the rule adoption published in the New Jersey Register, commercial fishermen will be permitted to continue using portions of two existing reefs in state waters about three miles off Sandy Hook and Manasquan. Recreational fishermen and scuba divers will continue to have access to all sections of the reef.
The new reef - for recreational use only - will be constructed within the next six months on one square mile of ocean floor in state waters about three miles off the coast of Barnegat Inlet in Ocean County.
Officials said the amended plan should resolve federal and fishing community concerns that commercial interests have been intruding upon and hampering recreational angling on the reefs, which are funded by excise taxes on recreational gear and boat fuel.
For years, recreational fishermen and divers have complained that strings of lobster and crab pots set up by commercial fishermen block them from access to the sites. The new rules say that both commercial and recreational lobster "potters" will be restricted to between sunrise and sunset, and must inform the Marine Law Enforcement Headquarters of their plan to place them two hours beforehand. They will also be required to mark individual posts within the zone with buoy markers.
Anthony Mauro, chairman of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, a group representing recreational fishermen, said he approved of the new regulations.
"The new reef rules are evidence that difficult and protracted problems can be resolved when unaffiliated groups with conflicting agendas concentrate on common goals instead of differences," Mauro said.
"Commissioner Martin designed a compromise that addressed the concerns of all parties and helped move the issue to a resolution."
But Jack Sobel, a senior scientist with the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based environmental group, has long contended that possible toxicity from the material used to build the reefs and damage to the natural ecosystem exceeds any benefits derived from their construction.
Sobel said there was "little evidence" the reefs provide a "net benefit."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the artificial reefs could be promoting a cycle of overfishing that could deplete fish stocks, and that study needs to be done to determine whether the reefs are harming the environment.
"The DEP should be relying on scientific studies before making plans that may end up harming the environment," Tittel said.
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