It’s Time for Saltwater Anglers to Return Nero’s Fiddle

It’s Time for Saltwater Anglers to Return Nero’s Fiddle
By Anthony P Mauro, Sr (c) 2011

Conservation Corner w/ Anthony P. Mauro, Sr
Conservation Corner w/ Anthony P. Mauro, Sr

USA –-( The question as to how anglers should pay for the management of New Jersey’s marine fisheries has been argued for many years. During this time our obstinance has allowed the state’s ability to perform marine fishery management functions to decline precipitously.

In effect, we’ve chosen to occupy ourselves with unimportant matters while neglecting priorities. We are the modern day version of Nero fiddling while the great fire of Rome raged.

The Bureau of Marine Fisheries (BMF) is responsible for the administration of marine fisheries programs. The mission of the bureau is to protect, conserve and enhance marine fisheries resources and their habitat. There are nearly 130 miles of Atlantic coast and 83 miles of bayshore under its charge.

The BMF performs research and inventory projects designed to provide data on fishery resources. This information is used to determine the health and sustainability of New Jersey’s fisheries and is relevant to the establishment of fish quotas.

The viability of our natural marine resources is the sustaining factor of New Jersey’s recreational and commercial fishing commerce. Marine fisheries are the foundation of a value-added tourism industry estimated to add $16 billion to New Jersey’s economy, it also employs 10,000 people.

Nearly $2 billion are directly attributed to recreational fishing revenues. It is obvious that the success or failure of fishing dependent businesses is to some degree a function of the ability of BMF to perform its responsibilities.

With this in mind, it is important for us to have an idea of the ramifications of the Bureau of Marine Fisheries budget.

The total budget is $3.48 million and it breaks down as follows:

  • • $1.35 million from the federal government (Sport Fish Restoration Act, Wallop Breaux).
  • • $345,000 from commercial license sales, shellfish permits, and net licenses.
  • • $686,000 from the state treasury by means of appropriation
  • • $1.1 million from the Nuclear Emergency Response Fund (this is a one time transfer)

The budget is actually $280,000 less than prior year, which may not seem significant but it needs perspective to understand its relevance. The inadequacy of the BMF budget can be highlighted by the fact that the $3.48 million used to manage 130 miles of New Jersey shoreline is less than New Hampshire’s budget, which used to manage only 13 miles of shoreline.

Additionally, by the time you read this column Governor Christie will have likely decided whether to give New Jersey a free saltwater registry and possibly fund it from the existing BMF budget. If so, the free registry may cost $600,000 – an amount not included in the original budget.

Unless the Governor designates funding from a source other than our marine fisheries the money needed to implement and manage the free saltwater registry might come from natural resource management programs. Monies could be taken from the artificial reef program, or perhaps it will necessitate the firing of a biologist that works on species management plans for weak fish, black fish, or other species. We can only wonder as to how it will impact our ability to enjoy our marine resources and to what degree.

We should keep in mind that New Jersey’s average recreational harvest ranking from 2002 – 2006 among all 14 Atlantic Coast States was # 1 for species such as summer flounder, bluefish and black sea bass and # 2 for species such as tautog and striped bass.

Regardless of the action taken by the Governor with the free saltwater registry, the dismal state of affairs at BMF should concern us since the other Atlantic Coast States are in a better position than New Jersey to compete for coast-wide fisheries quotas. New Jersey currently ranks last in total State Marine funding per angler among every Atlantic Coast State, this is according to United States Fish and Wildlife Service data (2006).

Even if the Governor finds the $600,000 from a place other than our natural resources to fund the registry, it will most likely be a one-time fix since he is faced with a $10.7 billion budget deficit. You may have noticed that in the current BMF budget there is already a one-time fix – a transfer of $1.1 million from the Nuclear Emergency Response Fund. It is unlikely that this money will be available next year.

When we add New Jersey’s financial woes to the long history of indifference by our policy makers towards fishing and the apathy of the angling community towards waging a campaign for funding BMF it is no stretch to conclude that reversing the downward trends with fisheries management will not improve of its own accord. We need to create a long term strategy to secure permanent funding for BMF.

For a better understanding of how the BMF became so vulnerable we first need to understand that our preoccupation with our own agendas have prevented us from making our fisheries a priority with policymakers – we’ve been out of sight and out of mind.

Some people have rallied behind their belief that anglers already pay excessive tax dollars to both federal and state governments, with only a pitiable amount returned to the stewardship of natural resources. They maintain that BMF should be funded with a greater share of tax dollars from the general treasury and not be paid for by a license, stamp or fee.

Without an involved and energized angling community actively campaigning to obtain more tax dollars for BMF it is difficult to see how monies will be appropriated. Plus, a $10.7 billion state budget deficit makes the task a daunting challenge, even if such a campaign existed.

There are also those who believe a saltwater license is needed to remedy the deficiency at BMF. While this would provide an influx of cash for BMF to perform its responsibilities, there remains a concern that the money would not be guaranteed the protection it needs from the quick fingers of a state treasurer.

Even the Federal system that is in place to protect the monies in the Hunter and Angler fund have been breeched by the state’s penchant for creative financing and millions of dollars used to pay for the fringe benefits of Division of Fish and Wildlife employees. In contrast, the general treasury of New Jersey pays for every other agency.

Some people also believe that a quick infusion of cash from a license excusues our policymakers from engaging in the problems faced by the BMF and therefore perpetuates their lack of appreciation and respect for the important contributions made to our state by the angling community.

So, as both schools of thought fortify their stands the ensuing paralysis has caused a steady decline at BMF. Lost in this ideological battle is the goal of having a viable BMF that is accountable to stakeholders.

It seems one solution would be to provide a forum for all stakeholders to meet and articulate their vision for a viable BMF. Once there is agreement we can begin to chip away at the paralysis and begin establishing goals and strategies to work towards our vision.

We can take the resulting plan to Trenton and as a coalition begin to engage our legislators and ask for a law to provide an equitable, permanent and protected source of funding.

There is no doubt that this is a daunting undertaking but it is in our own best interests that we prioritize the competency of the BMF, which will give us a better ability to compete with the other States for our share of fishery quotas.

Saltwater anglers have fiddled for too long while the fires at BMF have raged. It’s time to return the fiddle to Nero and turn our attention to laying a foundation for an effective and accountable BMF.

Color The Green Movement Blue
Color The Green Movement Blue

Anthony P. Mauro, Sr, (also known as “Ant” to friends and associates) is Chairman and co-founder of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance.

In addition to NJOA, Ant’s commitment to the principles of sustainable use of natural resources and stewardship for the environment helped to found the New Jersey Angling & Hunting Conservation Caucus. The NJAHC is the first outdoor caucus of its kind in New Jersey and is designed to educate opinion leaders and policy makers of the principles of conservation and the benefits that confer to the state’s wildlife and ecology.

A lifelong resident of New Jersey, Ant is an international big game hunter and avid conservationist. He has authored two books on conservation and hunting, including “Color The Green Movement Blue“.