Traps Off the Reefs

Watch it on video... ReefRescue's GIVE US BACK OUR REEFS! A picture may tell 1000 words but you'll learn the entire story from a 3 part series of videos. 
This is part 1. Parts 2 and 3 can be found at Reef Rescue

Thank you for your interest in learning more about how New Jersey’s ocean reefs are being used inappropriately.
It’s important to realize that as with public parks, the ocean reefs belong to all of us – regardless of whether or not we use them. Therefore, it is wrong for commercial interests to profit from a public trust (our State-built reefs) while restricting public access. Just as it would be wrong for a business to establish a manufacturing plant on a public park and restrict public access.
You can use the link that follows to send a prewritten letter requesting that bill A-1152 be heard in the Assembly, which allows for public access (hook and line, and spear fishing) to ocean reefs as intended by the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program. "Give Us Back Our Reefs!

Q. I've read that Federal funding has been terminated for the artificial reefs. Who decides if funding can be restored for New Jersey's Reef Program?
A. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) administers the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program, which is responsible for distributing federal excise taxes collected on recreational fishing and diving equipment to state resource agencies for various programs benefiting recreational fishing and diving activities.
This agency was responsible for terminating federal funding for New Jersey's Reef Program because of excessive trap lines that restrict access to the reefs by anglers and divers. Recreational anglers and divers are the source of the federal funds by means of excise taxes on recreational gear. The USFWS has the authority to reinstate federal funding when the gear conflicts on New Jersey's reefs are resolved.

Do reef permits require that all types of fishing gear be allowed on reefs?
A. No. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJ DEP) has a blanket permit for all 15 ocean reef sites through the Philadelphia District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. It was written in the NJ DEP Public Notice for the most recent permit update, "...the purposes of the artificial reef sites are to provide habitat for marine fish and shellfish and to provide fishing grounds for anglers and underwater structures for scuba divers."
State permits are also required for reefs in state waters; those permits allow the NJ DEP to " an artificial reef system for the improvement of fish and shellfish habitat and for use by recreational fishermen and scuba divers". The permits do not require that traps, nets, dredges or trawls be allowed on reefs.
Furthermore, Army Corps and State permits are issued for all sorts of specific public and private uses including; oil platforms, wind farms, pipelines, recreational fishing piers, commercial fish docks, etc. Many of the commercial projects have buffer areas around them that exclude all other ocean users. Some permits, such as those needed for reefs, are designed for the general public and exclude users that disrupt public use.

Q. Who is allowed to use ocean reefs?
A. Everyone is allowed to use New Jersey's reefs. The State built the reefs with the same purpose as a public park - everyone is welcome as long as they participate in activities for which the park was designed. A park is designed for public recreation, not a place for businesses to establish bases of commercial enterprise and profiteering. Similarly, the reefs were designed for hook and line and spear fishing -- everyone is welcome as long as the activities on the reefs do not interfere with the purpose for which the reefs were designed.

Q. Has the commercial fishing industry contributed to the building of New Jersey's reefs?
A. No. The commercial industry has not contributed funds to reef construction efforts. Recreational anglers and divers have contributed approximately $10 million (from federal excise taxes on recreational fishing equipment and donations) for reef building over the past 25 years.
However, the commercial fishing industry has spread all of their gear on the reefs for purposes of commerce and profit. In effect, they have annexed the reefs and in doing so restrict public access to recreational users wanting to fish using hook and line, and spear.
To add insult to the illicit operations occurring on the reefs, the commercial fishing industry uses a portion of their profits as a means of lobbying to protect the continued operations of their businesses on the public reefs. This is done at the expense of the recreational community -- those that pay for the reefs.

Q. What can I do to fight the obvious injustice that allows commercial industry to annex the reefs for their own purposes, restrict public access and use the profits to lobby legislators and policy makers to ensure they maintain the status quo?
A. Apathy by the public has allowed the current situation to flourish and will continue to work on behalf of the commercial fishing industry. To make matters worse, now that Delaware has written a regulation to remove commercial fixed gear from their reefs it is likely just a matter of time before the traps and pots are moved to New Jersey's artificial reefs. New Jersey is known as a safe haven for the conscienceless practice of allowing the commercial fishing industry to dominate the artificial reefs, and for its disregard for the public's best interest regarding this matter. The termination of federal funding to New Jersey is not only a historic act it is also an unequivocal statement by the federal government that there are those in power that wrongfully allow the practice of restricting public access to the artificial reefs.
It will take an engaged public to reverse the hard core nature of New Jersey politics and fight for the public's best interest. Time is of the essence. You can do the following:
A final protest, along with a rally, is scheduled to heighten public awareness about the lack of public access to artificial reefs and to help restore Federal funding. The protest and rally are scheduled for Saturday, April 30th, and will begin at 10:00am in front of Legislative District 1, 21 North Main Street, Cape May Court House, NJ 08210.

Q) What is the goal of New Jersey's Reef Program?
A) NJ's ocean reefs are similar to public parks; open to everyone's use, as long as they are used with the appropriate fishing gear. According to the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program the appropriate fishing gear is hook and line, and spear. This type of gear does not impede access for those who want to use the reefs, as do commercial fixed (traps) gear.
The goal of New Jersey's Reef Program, according to the State's Reef Management Plan, is as follows: "Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) goal in both constructing and managing reefs is to spread the benefits of the reefs among as many people as possible. To accomplish this goal, DEP may have to restrict or discourage uses of reefs that foster an inequitable share of either the fisheries resources or access to the resource being taken or dominated by a small group of people."
There are less than 20 trappers now dominating reefs, and they restrict public access by setting thousands of traps tethered to miles of connecting ground ropes.

Q) How valuable are ocean reefs to NJ's recreational fishing industry?
A) According to a national survey, New Jersey's recreational marine fishing industry adds approximately $1.3 billion annually to the state's economy, which provides employment to 10,000 people and generates more than $100 million in state sales taxes.
We do not have an exact percentage of the amount that reefs contribute to $1.3 billion total, but reefs are critical to the total catch of party boats, charter boats and private boat anglers. In fact, a DEP study from 2000 established that recreational anglers caught over 4.7 million fish on NJ reefs. This catch represents 18 percent of the total recreational catch in all of the State's salt waters. If we were to view the productivity of reefs in comparison to the total industry at a proportion similar to the catch, the economic impact is potentially upwards of $200 million annually.
Q) How important are reefs to scuba divers in New Jersey?
A) During the past 25 years more than 170 ships and barges of all types, from 44-foot patrol boats to 460-foot Navy ships, have been sunk on New Jersey reefs. Most scuba diving is focused on thousands of wrecks scattered along the Jersey coast. In 2000, the DEP found that 62 percent of private boat dive trips and 33 percent of all charter trips were on reefs. The advantage of diving reefs is that there are many wrecks and other structures in confined areas, which makes for easier access.
Q) Why is it important to eliminate traps from reefs as compared to other ocean areas? A) Outside of coastal bays and the proximity of inlets, recreational fishing activity is far more concentrated on reef sites than other areas of the ocean. Individual reef sites often have hundreds of recreational boats fishing on them. To accommodate as many boats as possible, reef structures are spread out to form drift fishing areas. Large numbers of trap lines, stretched across reef sites, interfere with drift fishing by snagging rigs and anchors. This not only discourages use of the reefs but is also costly to recreational users because of the amount of gear that is lost. It is also the recreational user that pays for the reefs through an excise tax on recreational gear. 

Q.) What are the objectives of New Jersey's Reef Program?
A.) According to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection's "Reef Management Plan," the objectives of the Reef Program are to create hard substrate habitat for marine life, new fishing grounds for hook and line, and spear fishing (recreational or commercial), underwater attractions for scuba divers and economic benefits to the state's recreational fishing and diving industries.

Q.) What types of fishing gear are appropriate for use on reefs? Is there any particular gear that is inappropriate?
A.) Since reefs were designed for use by the general public and built with Federal Sport Fish Restoration funds, the appropriate gear for use on ocean reefs is inefficient gear; hook and line, and spear. Hook and line can be used by recreational or commercial fishermen. This is also true for reefs built in other states.
Highly efficient gear is inappropriate for use on artificial reefs. This includes gear that is capable of catching large quantities of fish such as traps, trawls, dredges and gill nets. Gear such as trap lines catch fish and lobster 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without the fisherman having to be present. The trap lines also restrict access to the reefs by those using hook and line, or spear. The trap lines act to snag rigs and anchors, and also impede divers.
Additionally, the dragging of trawl nets or dredges across reefs destroys reef structures. Gill nets become entangled and lost in reef structures and indefinitely ensnare and kill fish.

Q.) What are "ghost" traps?
A.) When traps (fixed gear) are lost during storms or through entanglement in reef structures, they are referred to as "Ghost traps." Ghost traps continue to catch and kill fish, crabs and lobsters until a degradable panel, or the net funnel, is finally breached. The extensive ground ropes and plastic-coated wire traps last for decades on the sea floor. These remnants, also known as "Ghost gear" are an impediment to angling; snagging fishing rigs, anchors and even divers.

Q.) Are reefs the only place commercial fishermen can catch lobsters?
A.) No. New Jersey's traditional lobster fishing grounds encompass extensive areas of rough bottom, rock outcroppings, deep sloughs, channel edges, clay banks, the shelf edge and thousands of old shipwrecks and snags. Lobsters were caught in traps for decades before the Reef Program was started; there are fewer trap fishermen today than there were prior to reef development. In fact, according to commercial docks, over 80 percent of the state's lobsters are caught in the Mud Hole, an extensive area far removed from any reef.
Additionally, the lobsters that are on reefs do not remain there, they move around with seasonal changes in water temperature. Traps do not have to be set on reefs to catch lobsters, since lobsters migrate over the sea floor they will eventually find their way into a trap set elsewhere. Ocean reefs are of great benefit to commercial lobster fishermen, regardless if they set a trap on a reef. A Department of Environmental Protection study found that reefs are nursery grounds, which produce 14 "baby" (cricket-sized) lobsters per square yard of reef structure. In total, NJ's 15 reef sites provide nursery habitat for tens of millions of baby lobsters. As lobsters age and reach market size, they move off reefs and become available to trap fishermen. Hook and line fishermen rarely catch lobsters on reefs, nearly all go to commercial harvest.

Q.) Who is in charge of building reefs in New Jersey?

A.) In 1984, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), initiated the State's Reef Program, which replaced some small private reef initiatives. The DFW is solely responsible for all ocean reef construction in NJ. The DFW developed a network of 15 ocean reef sites, 2 of these sites are in state waters and 13 sites are in federal waters. Each site requires a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers. The 15 reef sites encompass about 25 square miles of sea floor, representing 0.3 percent of the total ocean bottom off the Jersey coast. Therefore, 99.7 percent of the sea floor is open to all types of fishing gear.

Q.) How do recreational anglers pay for the artificial reefs?
Beginning in 1989, the administration of the state's Reef Program has been paid for with funds from the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Act. These funds are derived from excise taxes on recreational fishing and diving equipment. These monies are returned to state natural resource agencies (NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife) for specific purposes, such as artificial reef management, that directly benefit recreational fishermen and divers. It is a users pay, users benefit program. Also, numerous fishing and diving clubs have donated millions of dollars to assist in the construction of artificial reefs over the past 25 years.

Q.) Can federal funding be discontinued for the ocean reefs if New Jersey is not in conformance with the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program?
A.) Yes. In fact, in an April 2008 letter to us, Mr. John Organ, PhD, Chief, Wildlife Section, US Fish and Wildlife wrote that Federal regulations and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy are, "...explicit that commercial use of the reefs cannot interfere with the purposes for which the lands are being managed." According to Dr. Organ, one of the approved grant objectives, consistent with the Sport Fish Restoration Program is, "To provide increased fishing opportunity to recreational anglers, and thus provide economic benefits to New Jersey's sport fishing industry."
If New Jersey does not conform to the purposes outlined in the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program - funding for the reefs can be discontinued.

Q. I've heard it mentioned again that there needs to be a management plan before traps are removed from the reefs. Is this true?
A. No. The framework for managing gear on reefs is already provided under the Summer Flounder/Black Sea Bass Management Plan of the Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, which allows reefs to be designated as Special Management Zones (SMZ). Florida, Georgia and South Carolina obtained SMZ status for their reefs and thus limited fishing gear to hook and line, and spear - there are no traps of any kind - the fixed gear was simply removed. 

Q. Why should I be concerned about having access to ocean artificial reefs?
A. As with public parks, ocean reefs are open to everyone as long as they use the type of gear for which the reefs were designed; hook and line, and spear (DEP Reef Plan). During the past 20 years commercial fisherman have put their lobster and fish traps (commercial gear) on these reefs to the point where the public (recreational and commercial anglers) are restricted from accessing the reefs.
It's no different than a company setting up a business on a public park and profiting from using the publicly funded location, while restricting access to a public that has paid for the park for the purpose of recreation. The issue is a clear violation of the intended use of a public trust.

Q. How do recreational anglers pay for the artificial reefs?
A. Beginning in 1989, the administration of the state's Reef Program has been paid for with funds from the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Act. These funds are derived from excise taxes on recreational fishing and diving equipment. These monies are returned to state natural resource agencies ( NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife) for specific purposes, such as artificial reef management, that directly benefit recreational fishermen and divers. It is a users pay, users benefit program. Also, numerous fishing and diving clubs have donated millions of dollars to assist in the construction of artificial reefs over the past 25 years.

Q. What are "lobster and fish traps?"
A. Lobster and fish traps are 4-foot long boxes made of plastic-coated wire. Traps are attached to long ropes stretched across the sea floor. A typical trap line is 1500 feet long, with 2 dozen traps attached. Sometimes, the ends of the trap line are marked with surface flags. Once set, trap lines are left on a fishing spot for months at a time.
Traps have net funnels that prevent fish and lobster from escaping. Lobster traps are baited, fish traps are not. Compared to hook and line, traps are highly-efficient gear, capable of catching 24 hours a day, day after day, throughout the entire fishing season.

Q. How does fixed commercial gear (traps) present a problem for recreational anglers and divers?
A. The thousands of feet of trap lines and hundreds of traps stretched across every reef site act to snag anglers' rigs, anchors, and even immobilize boats when trap buoy lines wrap around propellers. This is costly to recreational anglers and can also be dangerous. A DEP survey in 2009 found that 57 percent of anglers stated there was too much commercial trap gear on reefs. Many anglers stop fishing on the reefs when there is too much trap gear.
Q. Does the gear conflict created by too many traps on reefs jeopardize federal funding of the state's Reef Program?
A. Yes. Restricting access of anglers and divers to reefs built with Federal Sport Fish Restoration funds violates federal funding regulations. Failure to eliminate the gear conflict created by traps can result in the loss of federal funding for the Reef Program.

Q. Have other states encountered this problem? If so, what have they done?
A. The gear conflict between trap gear and hook and line anglers and divers is by no means unique to NJ reefs; it has been a common problem along many states with shorelines. However, states such as; Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and New York have protected public use of artificial reefs off their coasts by limiting fishing gear on artificial reefs by to hook and line, and spear. Delaware is in the process of doing the same. Hook and line gear can be used by either recreational or commercial fishermen.

Q. Who is blocking the current legislative Assembly bill A-1152 that would resolve the trap gear conflict issue?
A. Approximately 20 commercial trappers are setting thousands of traps on NJ artificial reefs and restricting access to the approximately 800,000 recreational anglers who have paid for the reefs. Many of the commercial interests using traps on the reefs operate out of Cape May, New Jersey.
Our research has shown that in the last few years there have been campaign contributions in excess of $40,000 to legislators in District 1 (includes; Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland counties) from the commercial fishing industry (located in Cape May County), the commercial fishing industry's lobbying group, and also the food industry. This figure does NOT include indirect contributions, which consists of various fundraising activities.
For four years the NJOA and ReefRescue have tried to have legislation heard that would allow New Jersey to comply with the Federal Sports Fish Restoration Act and provide anglers and divers with unrestricted access to the reefs. The legislation has been blocked (in the Assembly) by parliamentary procedures initiated specifically by legislators in District 1.
Over the years, the actions of District 1 legislators in preventing legislation to be heard have continued to put in jeopardy the Federal funding New Jersey receives for administration of the artificial reef program, while allowing 20 commercial trappers to restrict the access of 800,000 recreational anglers to the artificial reefs. Remember, these 800,000 anglers have paid for the reefs and not the commercial trappers.
Q. I've heard it mentioned that there needs to be a management plan before traps are removed from the reefs. Is this true?
A. Talk of a management plan is "code" used by those with an interest in protecting the commercial fishing industry's misuse of the artificial reefs. It is also misinformation designed to confuse the public and deflect attention from a few legislators posturing and blocking "Traps Off the Reefs" (A-1152) legislation from being heard.
The framework for managing gear on reefs is already provided under the Summer Flounder/Black Sea Bass Management Plan of the Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, which allows reefs to be designated as Special Management Zones (SMZ). Florida, Georgia and South Carolina obtained SMZ status for their reefs and thus limited fishing gear to hook and line, and spear -- there are no traps of any kind. The issue is simple, commercial gear are on the artificial reefs in violation of both the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Act and the public's trust. The commercial gear must be removed.

Q. Who are the legislators blocking the "Traps Off the Reefs" bill (A-1152) and how can I contact them and ask them to allow the bill to be heard in the Assembly?
A. At this time, we believe the best course of action is for people to contact Assemblyman Albano, District 1. As Chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources committee, Assemblyman Albano has the authority to allow the committee to hear bill A-1152. It is in this committee that the bill should be first heard. Once the bill passes the committee it will then move on to the full Assembly for a vote.
Our lack of involvement in protecting the things that belong to us has provided others with the will to take advantage of us and has created the problem of commercial gear on the reefs. The commercial fishing industry is using a part of the profits they make on our artificial reefs to fund efforts to restrict recreational anglers from accessing the reefs.  

We have provided a letter that you can send to Assemblyman Albano, along with copies to the Governor, Lt. Governor, Senate President, Assembly Speaker, and all Assembly legislators. Simply go to the link that follows, fill in a few bits of information and then click your mouse.
It's time to tell our legislators to return the artificial reefs to anglers and to stop jeopardizing the flow of Federal funding to New Jersey that is used to manage the reefs. Tell Assemblyman Albano to give us back our reefs! 

Here's the link:
(Answers provided by Bill Figley, retired Director, NJ Artificial Reef Program and Anthony Mauro, Chair, New Jersey Outdoor Alliance.)
Also, please... 
Join "Reef Rescue" in PROTEST to...

Give Us Back Our Reefs!

April 9, 2011
April 23, 2011
April 30, 2011 - This date will end with a rally!

Time: 10:00 am

Legislative Office, District 1
21 North Main Street
Cape May Court House, NJ 08210 

NJOA (CF) Council members supporting "Traps Off the Reefs" are:

- New Jersey Outdoor Alliance
- Reef Rescue
- NJ Council Diving Clubs
- Jersey Coast Anglers Association
- NJ Trout Unlimited
- NJ Beach Buggy Association
- Hudson River Fishermen's Association
- Greater Point Pleasant Charter Boat Association
- Jersey Coast Shark Anglers
- Cape May County Party & Charter Boat Association
- NJ State Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs
- Hi-Mar Striper Club
            Non Council Members supporting "Traps Off the Reefs":
- Saltwater Anglers of Bergen County
- The Regency Fishing Club
- Manasquan Fishing Club
- Sunrise Bay Anglers Fishing Club
- There are additional saltwater fishing, freshwater fishing, hunting and conservation groups that support "Traps Off the Reefs." The list will be updated on an ongoing basis.

Thank you
Anthony P. Mauro, Sr

Please click here to read the response from Dave Chanda, Director, NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife [this is a pdf that opens in a new window]

Updated 4/27/11