RE: Turmoil For NJ Saltwater Anglers, Perspective from Recreational Fishing Alliance

By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

New Jersey Saltwater Fishing
New Jersey Saltwater Fishing

New Jersey –-( In a recent Ammoland column by conservationist Anthony Mauro, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) is clumsily referred to by the author as Satan.  Clearly, Mr. Mauro has great disdain for RFA and our 16-year mission to defend the rights of saltwater anglers.

Mr. Mauro formed the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance (NJOA) as a part-time endeavor just 5 years ago, enlisting the help of a retired New Jersey state conservation officer Ed Markowski.

The venom is catharsis; it’s realization by its very founders that NJOA has proven to be a complete failure in attaining any coastal fisheries action or legislation in the state of New Jersey.

Take for example the Pots Off the Reef legislation introduced by the New Jersey legislature in 2007 to effectively prohibit use of fixed commercial gear within 100 feet of artificial reefs created by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and their Division of Fish and Wildlife.  An established and effective political action organization which solely represents the interests of saltwater anglers, business owners and the marine resource, RFA has continually supported efforts to clear New Jersey’s artificial reefs of fixed gear, including legislative attempts within the state capital at Trenton.

Regrettably, unreasonable lobbying efforts on the part of the New Jersey commercial fishing industry led to hostile reaction by the NJOA and its allies, creating a monumental political divide in the efforts to move legislation forward.

The real issue here as the RFA has continually pointed out is that the NJDEP has never had to wait for legislation to get this issue rectified; it was a DEP regulation which originally allowed commercial potters on the reef sites to begin with, a simple regulation from the DEP to get the pots off, is essentially all that is required now; NJOA, on the other hand, decided instead to put the pressure squarely on the New Jersey Senate and Assembly in hoping to drive a legislative victory for their upstart organization.

While RFA supports a 100% removal of fixed gear from New Jersey reefs – either through legislative or regulatory means – we have also warned the DEP of a bigger conservation issue that also needs to be addressed with regard to the sheer number of commercial fish pots in inshore waters.  Since 2006, RFA has been pressing NJDEP as to the unmanaged commercial pot/trap fishery, an issue that not only impacts reef access by individual anglers but has also led to a serious conservation problem with coastal fish stocks, most notably tautog.

As much as RFA has supported legislative efforts to resolve the conflict in state waters with fixed gear, RFA has also pressured the NJDEP to develop a comprehensive pot management plan for better accounting of the sheer number of pots in coastal waters.  After all, if *10,000 commercial fish pots are removed from an artificial reef, where will they go?

(*The number 10,000 is purely a random figure; no one, not even the NJDEP itself which is responsible for such regulatory concerns, has no reasonable idea how many pieces of fixed commercial fishing gear are actually deployed at any given time in New Jersey coastal waters.)

Hunters and anglers know that when your truck gets stuck in soft sand, the last thing you want to do is press down harder on the accelerator; you’ll only spin your wheels and dig yourself a deeper hole.  With 16 years of experience navigating the political arena, RFA knew enough to get out of the cab to better survey the opportunities in order to figure out a better way around the mess created by the two sides.  By essentially letting some air out of the tires, RFA chose to discuss the issue with legislators, representatives of the DEP and members of the commercial sector.

On the other hand, NJOA, with a few dozen members of their associated groups including Jersey Coast Anglers Association and New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, left the table and opted for a different approach by organizing hostile, sign-carrying protests in front of legislative offices, threatening key legislators that if they did not fully comply with the NJOA demands on the reef issue, they would be elected out of office.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” Needless to say, Mr. Mauro and his band of merry man fell short of his threat, which has essentially rendered NJOA mostly obsolete in terms of legislative issues in the state of New Jersey.

RFA still supports efforts to remove fixed gear from the reefs, either by legislative or regulatory means.  The “compromise bill” which NJOA opposes would not only clear approximately 90% of the surface area of New Jersey’s two inshore reefs of fixed gear, it would also require the NJDEP to implement a much-needed pot management plan get better accounting on the number of fish traps deployed throughout New Jersey coastal waters.  Furthermore, this legislation would also allow the state to apply for special management zone privilege in federal waters through the regional fisheries management council, paving the way for efforts to eliminate fixed gear from all of New Jersey artificial reef complex in federal waters outside 3 miles.

It should be noted that the main reason the proverbial “truck” got stuck in the sand in the first place is because of a handful of lobstering families in Northern New Jersey who’ve been fishing a particular stretch of the bottom for a number of generations before there was an artificial reef dropped down on top of them by NJDEP.  The lobstermen of New Jersey would like to have access to that natural bottom where they’ve been lobstering for decades; the “compromise bill” would essentially allow them access to a small corner of natural structure, and while giving recreational anglers unimpeded access to the rest of New Jersey’s artificial reef complex.

Some compromise, huh?

The RFA was specifically charted as a political action organization in 1996 with a specific mission “to safeguard the rights of saltwater anglers, protect marine, boat and tackle industry jobs, and ensure the long-term sustainability of our Nation’s saltwater fisheries.”  Built on the doctrine of the NRA model, RFA was structured to be a first line of defense for the rights of our members to fish in coastal waters, for sportfishing businesses to thrive on that open access, while taking into account the sustainability of our fisheries.

NJOA on the other hand was launched in 2007 with a mission “to educate opinion leaders and policymakers about the principles of conservation; the foundation for healthy ecosystems, fish and wildlife.” His own non-profit tax records show the NJOA foundation has a primary purpose “to improve the health of both land and sea by means of conservation and habitat stewardship.” Sounds more like the stance of your typical ‘feel good’ environmental organization, doesn’t it?

That’s why it wasn’t too much of a surprise when NJOA supported Paul Eidman in his bid to take a seat at the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) as representative of New Jersey’s recreational fishing community.  The fact of the matter is that Mr. Eidman has been a lobbyist of record for the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a creation of the Pew Environment Group that has lobbied extensively in opposition to angler advocacy efforts to reform the federal fisheries law to provide anglers with improved access to coastal fish stocks.

As an advocate working with the Marine Fish Conservation Network, Mr. Eidman has himself been a vocal opponent of efforts to allow fisheries managers greater flexibility to keep the summer flounder fishery open.  Somehow in his latest rant, Mr. Mauro believes anglers would’ve been better suited to having a larger size limit (18 inches) on summer flounder, which arguably would’ve made it harder than it is currently (17-1/2 inches) to get a couple of keepers for dinner; it would’ve also statistically created increased bycatch mortality rates on released, undersized fish.

The fact is, Mr. Eidman and the Marine Fish Conservation Network oppose all efforts to reform our federal fisheries law as so many New Jersey anglers have requested, they have openly opposed efforts to provide saltwater anglers with improved access to the stock, and the organization itself has also been tabbed by their institutional funder as a primary proponent of catch share policies which would effectively cap the number of coastal fishermen by trading away ownership of the stock.

Furthermore, Mr. Eidman himself has openly supported President Obama’s controversial National Oceans Policy, an executive order which would create over-arching and restrictive new bureaucracy which could further restrict America’s right to open access of our public resource. The fact that Mr. Eidman’s name was introduced to the appointment debate originally at the behest of the NJDEP itself is evidence enough of his support for more bureaucracy and less rights for individual anglers throughout the entire Mid Atlantic region.

A key point in the debate over council appointments is that commercial fishing interests have, until this point, held a stranglehold on the vote at the regional fisheries council of late, especially the MAFMC.  Due in large part to RFA’s national lobbying efforts, the overall makeup of the MAFMC has just taken a radical shift in favor of recreational fishermen with the latest round of appointments.

New York’s commercial sector, which had held that particular ‘at large’ seat for over 10 years, actually lost the appointment to a recreational charter captain, a respected angler advocate named Capt. Tony DiLernia (who replaced commercial representative and fish wholesaler, Stephen Schafer.)  Furthermore, a Virginia environmental advocate named Peter de Fur was also replaced at the federal level by a longtime recreational advocate named Jeff Deem.

While the recent Ammoland piece selfishly blasts RFA because his NJDEP favored candidate did not get the federal nod, the fact is that the latest federal decision on appointments gives the recreational community the majority vote at the MAFMC with five (5) seats, as opposed to four (4) for the environmentalists and just three (3) for the commercial sector.  Had Mr. Eidman been selected as endorsed by NJOA, the federal fisheries service would’ve no doubt recognized his work with the Marine Fish Conservation Network, giving environmentalists a 5-4 majority over recreational anglers.

(For the record, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo picked a fine candidate in Capt. Tony DiLernia, and the Mid-Atlantic recreational fishing community should feel a sense of optimism for the next few years with the newly appointed representatives seeing things from a stronger angler perspective as opposed to commercial and strictly environmental angles.)

Essentially, the recreational community in the Mid Atlantic region scored a big win, this spring, with the council appointments, yet Mr. Mauro appears too much the fisheries management amateur to really understand or comprehend the process.  It should be noted of course that the RFA-NJ openly supported its own chairman, Capt. Adam Nowalsky, as a far better candidate to take the ‘at large’ seat for New Jersey to better represent the interests of New Jersey anglers.  Even if all the fishermen in New Jersey rallied around the most experienced and knowledgeable candidate on the slate, Capt. Nowalsky, it’s extremely unlikely that the ‘at large’ seat would’ve been awarded to New Jersey anyway, after all these years in New York, especially given state-by-state balance of power.

Ammoland readers should understand that appointment to the $450 a day MAFMC is not a popularity contest, but mostly a matter of partisan politics.  Think for a moment, our Democratic President and his Democratic administration, together decides how to appoint varied candidates to various MAFMC positions.  If a Republican governor puts one name up and a Democratic governor puts another name up, which selection would you think that the Democratic administration is going to select?

Precisely, it’s politics, and that’s the process which continues to confuse and bewilder the volunteer staff at the NJOA.

If you truly look at the details, it must certainly appear as if NJOA is far more interested in supporting the NJDEP than worrying about the rights of saltwater anglers.  During the saltwater registry vs. license debate in 2010/2011 for example, Mr. Mauro erroneously spread mistruths about the cost of a free angler registry here at Ammoland in an effort to rally support for a new fee to fish.  While claiming that registry costs would exceed $600,000 a year and warning how fishing moratoriums would soon be in place if anglers didn’t pony up to pay a new tax to fund the DEP, RFA recently reported how the true cost by the state DEP to implement an annual angler registry would actually amount to about $73,600 a year.

And the number of saltwater anglers? About 250,000 in year one, half the number continually used by NJOA officers to make the case for increased government spending in the state of New Jersey, and perhaps to inflate their own potential powerbase with legislators.

Yes, RFA can lay claim to having had a significant role in this victory for the recreational anglers of New Jersey; however, what Mr. Mauro still refuses to “claim” is ownership of the fictitious facts and figures disseminated during the 2-year debate at Ammoland and other sporting websites.  While RFA fought on behalf of their membership and worked with legislators to see a bill passed in both houses, NJOA was spreading a different message across the Internet, unsuccessfully opposing efforts to create a free angler registry in hopes of creating a new tax mechanism to raise monies for additional state government.

Therein lies the big rub, the most devilish of details if you will.  NJOA’s positions on conservation in the state of New Jersey have consistently favored the public sector’s best interest – the NJDEP specifically.  They’ve spent the past 5 years selling themselves to legislators as the “NJEA of New Jersey’s outdoor community” (a reference to the New Jersey Education Association, one of the largest public-sector unions in the state), and as such their leaders have invested significant time and membership dues on providing cover for the public sector and its bureaucracy.

Supporting a fee to fish, intensifying legislative battles over an NJDEP regulatory issue at the state-managed reef sites, endorsing a candidate favored by bureaucrats and radical conservation interests – Mr. Mauro is clearly trying to create a devilish little diversion away from the real issues.

Fact is, if the devil is truly in the details, I hope New Jersey sportsmen will pay close attention to the colorful NJOA logo emblazoned on the handbasket; before you climb aboard, you many to ask the driver if the thing is flame retardant, as I have a feeling it’s about to get pretty warm for those who follow false idols and bureaucrats.

About Jim Hutchinson, Jr

A longtime saltwater fishing writer/photographer and former executive editor of The Fisherman magazine, the author is managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, president of the New York Sportfishing Federation, and fisheries management editor of Big Game Fishing Journal.

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Capt.Paul Eidman

Jim Hutchinson’s latest rant above is a great example of something my mom used to tell me. She said “you can always tell who is loosing an argument. They are the loudest and always the first ones to attack on a personal level” Like many Jersey anglers that have gladly cut up our RFA membership cards, I have watched the organization morph into a sorry example of smoke, mirrors and anger. Nothing bugs me more than leaders that say one thing in “the name of fisherman” and then do another behind the scenes. Hard to keep up with the weekly… Read more »