The State of the Baymen: Barnegat Bay Recreational Fishermen’s Perceptions of Local Conservation Efforts

By: Alaina Perdon ’22, an Environmental Studies major, and Anthropology & Chesapeake Regional Studies minor.

The following was created for ANT 305: Ethnographic Methods.

Brief Description: The state of New Jersey regularly issues a “State of the Bay” address to update citizens on the status of restoration projects being carried out in Barnegat Bay. Though the landscape is so heavily influenced by the human activity that occurs there, the voices of the people that spend the most time on the water are often missing from this narrative. In this ethnographic study, I heard an alternative perspective to assess the “State of the Bay” through the eyes of the baymen themselves.

Abstract: The Barnegat Bay estuary comprises the coastline of Ocean County, New Jersey and serves as the setting for a majority of the state’s commercial and recreational fishing. Once declining, water quality, habitat abundance, and biodiversity in the bay have seen improvements in the past decade with help from conservation-focused policies. Included in these policies are the seasonal, size, and catch limits to which anglers are held when extracting fish from the bay. Through a series of semi-structured interviews with local fishermen, I sought to ascertain how the recreational fishery was impacted by such policies, and to understand how these individuals perceived the restrictions placed upon them in the name of conservation. Little research on the efficacy of fishing regulations has been conducted on a recreational level, and there has been no formal study conducted in this region. Existing reports attempt to quantify regulation compliance or effectiveness using numerical data like catch per unit effort (CPUE) rather than attempting a human-focused assessment of the extractors themselves. Extractors play a critical role in the ecosystem; thus, their collaboration is vital to ensure the success of any environmental conservation efforts. Conversation with local fishermen revealed a disconnect between themselves and the policymakers, leading to laws being written that hurt the fishermen or were difficult to comply with. As a result, certain regulations, like those for summer flounder, are considered ineffective. Furthermore, there exists a bias towards commercial fishermen in policymaking, while these individuals seem to be causing more harm to fish populations than recreational anglers. Greater presence of governing entities is necessary in fishing communities and in the bay itself to ensure conservation efforts have the desired impact while also not having a detrimental effect on the people that enjoy fishing on Barnegat Bay.


In his 2000 novel The Bayman, Merce Ridgeway paints the portrait of a Barnegat Bay teeming with life during the mid-twentieth century, with a seemingly limitless bounty of fish available to baymen like himself. Switch on a marine radio station on a fair-weather summer day, and you will hear the gripes of the modern day baymen struggling to land a keeper in the same waters their grandfathers fed their families from. Situated between the land masses of Ocean County and the barrier islands of New Jersey, Barnegat Bay is home to almost 200 unique species of fish, birds, and invertebrates and serves as the epicenter of the state’s recreational and commercial fisheries. Strained by increasing development of the surrounding land, the bay has experienced significant water quality degradation since the utopic days of Ridgeway, leading to notable habitat and species loss. In recent decades, tightening restrictions on pollution, development, and extraction through policies such as Governor Chris Christie’s Ten Point Plan to Save Barnegat Bay have lessened the harms caused by these anthropogenic factors. Data released annually by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJ DEP) and similar organizations generally assuages public fears, reporting an overall increase in fish populations and decrease in pollution levels. But scientific data collection can only capture so much of the story. The real “state of the bay” must be experienced firsthand and is best assessed by the individuals who spend their lives on the water. Barnegat Bay’s fishermen are our best gauges of the bay’s health as well as some of the staunchest conservationists, making them one of the most valuable elements of local conservation schema. Yet, the voices of recreational fishermen go unheard when policy is discussed, and their lifestyles are seldom considered when creating new regulations.

“I get we need some restrictions; we do. But the people in the State House don’t see what we see,” lifelong Barnegat Bay fisherman and Waretown, New Jersey resident Bert said. “Some of these rules hurt us fishermen, and that hurts the fishery, too.”

Simply put, sometimes regulations work and sometimes they do not. In the eyes of fishermen, a conservation law is effective if it can be reasonably complied with, and if compliance leads to a tangible improvement in the fishery. Now keeping a boat in the same Waretown marina his parents once did, John considers the striped bass “the perfect example of how conservation should work.”

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife issued a moratorium on striped bass in the 1980s after annual reported catches dropped below 30 fish per year, signifying a dire need for intervention to prevent regional extinction. This allowed the population to recover; the annual catch rose to 1,000 fish at the conclusion of the moratorium in 1992, reaching as high as 4,000 fish in 2003 (Striped Bass Fact 2018). In 1995, the population was considered rebuilt by the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council, and the benchmark spawning stock biomass of 202 million pounds was established. Spawning stock biomass refers to the total weight of individuals in the population capable of reproducing, and is an estimate used by governing bodies to assess the health of a species (Celestino, 2019). The 2018 stock assessment revealed the spawning stock biomass had dropped to 151 million pounds, again prompting intervention to preserve striped bass. In response, New Jersey’s Marine Fisheries Council approved a one-fish daily bag limit and a 28- to 38-inch size limit for striped bass in all state waters, and the 2020 Thanksgiving bass run saw plenty of keeper-sized fish for fishermen at the Jersey Shore (Radel, 2020).

“The regulations for striped bass just made fishing better. I don’t remember seeing as many stripers as a kid as I do now, and I know even more people are fishing for them now, so I’m gonna guess that means the regulations are working,” Waretown marina owner Mike reasoned.

Summer flounder, or fluke, are the antithesis of the striped bass. Fluke conservation is largely regarded as a failure in Barnegat Bay, leaving fishermen disappointed and confused. Presently in the state of New Jersey, fishermen can keep three fluke measuring at least 17 inches in the Delaware Bay and its tributaries, three fluke at 18 inches in all other waters, except in certain areas like Island Beach State Park, in which size and catch limits vary (NJ Recreational 2020). Actually, finding a fish that meets these requirements, Bert explains, can be nearly impossible.

“There’s just not as many fluke in the bay as there were, and it’s hard to get one big enough to keep,” he says. “You go out there and you get a 16- or 17-inch fish, a nice eatin’ fish, but you can’t keep ‘em. I’d just like to go out and get dinner, but you can’t hardly do that without becoming an outlaw.”

The state of the fluke fishery is ambiguous. Populations have declined since 2010, though this cannot be attributed solely to overfishing. The past six years have seen below-average recruitment of young fish, indicating changing water quality parameters driving spawning fish elsewhere (Witek, 2019). The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council provides their insight on the 2016 stock assessments in a memorandum issued the same year on policy recommendations: “Assuming an OFL with a lognormal distribution having a 60% CV, and a stock status lower than BMSY, the Council’s policy is to use a P* =0.239” (Dancy, 2016).

Such confounding language is one of the many issues local fishermen have with regulatory agencies. There seems to be little communication between the “suits in Trenton” and the everyday fishermen. The fluke regulations reflect a lack of understanding on the part of the policymakers: the size limits in place are not only convoluted but are also not reflective of the fish seen in Barnegat Bay.

“A lot of customers say they’d be okay with two [fluke] at maybe 16 inches so at least they could bring something home. You’re just not going to find an 18-inch fluke all that easily,” Mike said.

A Google search for “New Jersey summer flounder population” will yield results from NJ DEP, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Marine Fish Conservation Network, and NOAA, all listing different figures, different projections, and different opinions on the state of the fluke fishery based on seemingly different data. Where this data comes from remains unclear.

“I don’t think the state puts the resources toward enforcement and education they should,” confesses John. “I don’t know what the models they use to predict the populations every year could be.  I sign up for the reporting service every year, but I’ve never been called to report how many times I went out fishing or what I caught. They’re making all these regulations based on ‘science’ but the data they have is paltry, it appears.”

To create legislation that incites the appropriate changes in the ecosystem, one needs an adequate comprehension of the physical landscape, the water quality, the ebb and flow of fish populations, and the individuals interacting with these elements on a regular basis. Yet, the fishermen all agree the presence of conservation officers and scientists alike is severely lacking in fishing environments.

“Yesterday was actually the first time we saw Fish and Game officers here in at least a year, and they were very nice guys, but everybody was terrified of them,” Mike shrugs from behind the counter of his marina’s office. “Nobody had any illegal fish or anything, but they were scared.”

An absence of these figures in the recreational fishing ethos not only raises questions about the validity of the information local, state, and federal agencies are collecting about the fishery, but it also fosters an untrusting relationship between the fishermen and the people controlling the fish.

“It shouldn’t be like this, but there’s a lot of uncertainty when the regulations change all the time. We also just don’t see officers out here a lot, so when they show up out of nowhere with their guns and their bullet proof vests, it’s intimidating,” Mike explains.

When decisions are made that impact an ecosystem and its human inhabitants without taking into consideration the needs of all stakeholders and learning the nuances of the environment, ineffective or harmful laws are put into place. Because individuals from state departments are so seldom seen in local marinas and marshes, fishermen are led to believe the current conditions of Barnegat Bay are not known, and thus not considered, by policymakers.

“Their whole process of making a decision that is supposed to cover everybody, it doesn’t work,” Mike laughs. “It’s almost like they see people posting pictures of fish on Facebook and use that to gauge how the fishery is doing.”

Another major cause of concern for Barnegat Bay’s recreational fishermen is their commercial counterparts. As is the case with size and catch limits, they feel the policymakers fail to see the detrimental impact commercial fishermen can have on fish populations.

Governed by entirely different regulations, the industry seems to be given preferential treatment because of the revenue it generates; but with more lackadaisical restrictions and a drastically higher amount of bycatch produced, the commercial fishermen are doing the most damage.

John voices his frustration for the biased standards. “To me, it’s grossly unfair that the commercial guys can go out there and troll up thousands of pounds of summer flounder, and they can just kill and dump over whatever doesn’t meet their size limit, but I can’t take home a 17-inch fluke,” he says. As of January 2020, the size limit for fluke caught on commercial vessels is 14 inches in all New Jersey waters, four inches shorter than what Barnegat Bay’s recreational anglers can bring home.

Moreover, the commercial sector contributes significantly more to the state’s bycatch totals – the amount of undesirable or undersized organisms culled by extractors. The U.S. National Bycatch Report issued in 2010 showed that commercial fisheries were the largest contributors of bycatch in New England and the mid-Atlantic, with 3.6 million pounds of bycatch produced by the industry in one year between the two regions (Oswald, 2014).

“And the 2010 data is as recent as it gets,” Chris Zeman, one of New Jersey’s representatives to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, says. Zeman explains that NOAA has not produced such a report since, and seldom issued them before 2010. “They had the raw data but were not extrapolating it to obtain a clear picture of what was going on in the fisheries,” he detailed (Oswald, 2014).

Bert, like many, believes the government intentionally turns a blind eye to overfishing done by the commercial industry. In New Jersey, the consensus seems to be that the NJ DEP and similar entities do not monitor commercial vessels closely so as not to disrupt the flow of income from seafood exports, though there is no publicly available evidence to support these claims. Regardless, the looser restrictions, grotesque exploitation of fish populations, and NOAA’s failure to call attention to these discrepancies indicate the “commercial guys” are most to blame for any decline in fish population. Yet, the regulations put in place to protect the fisheries seem to target recreational anglers instead.

“In my opinion, commercial guys don’t care about the fish like we do. They’ll go out there, wipe out a species, and move on to something else. But when [the state] rolls out the new regulations every year, they’re only hurting us,” Bert fumes. “Put the people from the D – E – whatever on the commercial boats and they’d see the truth!”

Despite frustrations with the matter in which the state handles regulatory practices, these Waretown fishermen seem to agree that conservation efforts are steering the bay in the right direction. “In recent years, I’ve seen things get better,” Mike notes optimistically. “There’s an uptick in people using the marina lately, and I’m seeing more younger people, which is a good sign. The older people are complaining there’s no fish, but they’re out there.” He believes efforts to improve water quality, like reducing pollution from inland sources, have contributed to the resurgence in fish seen in his lifetime; albeit such improvements came at an initial cost to his family.

“I think the cleaner water in recent years has helped the fishery, too. And that cost a lot of money for us at first because we had to put in the infrastructure, the wash pits for the boats and what have you,” as he gestures to the signage displayed outside the marina office regarding fuel spill protocol. “But when guys weren’t getting as many fish, they didn’t use their boats as much, so we weren’t making any money to make up for what we had to spend.”

The men I spoke with care deeply about the state of the bay; they understand the necessity of conservation efforts to preserve the limited resources and are more than willing to put in the effort to meet these conservation goals.

“For guys my age, there’s a longing for the days when we could go out and catch whatever we wanted,” John admits. “We did conserve, to some extent, but now we’ve got these government rules and regulations. They’re so draconian that now there’s a lot of pushback; people view the regulations as so unfair. But if you said we could take whatever we wanted, we’d wipe everything out. So, it’s good we have these rules in place.”

Resentment builds towards these “draconian” lawmakers and well-intended conservationists when decisions are made without full understanding of the scope of the Barnegat Bay fishing community. Issues stem from lack of communication between those holding power and those out on the water. When the “science” does not reflect what these individuals are seeing every day, they are left with no choice but to feel slighted, especially when they watch commercial boats haul in hundreds of pounds of undersized fish without penalty.

Reform is needed to bridge the gap between these worlds, which should operate in tandem. The fishermen wish to see collaboration, more frequent presence of data-collectors, policy-enforcers, and bill-writers in the actual bay. There is a call for transparency on the part of governing bodies to justify their decision-making processes. And, ultimately, we hear a plea for fairness.

“I don’t know what the magic combination is,” Mike stresses, “but we need it all to some extent. We need fishing regulations for recreational and commercial guys.  We need water quality monitoring and laws about pollution. We need uniformity in policies across the state. It’s all gonna help, in the end.”

References

2020 NJ Recreational Minimum Size, Possession Limits, & Seasons. (2020). Retrieved 2020, from https://www.njfishandwildlife.com/pdf/2020/maregsum20.pdf

Celestino, M. (2019). 2018 STOCK ASSESSMENT OF ATLANTIC STRIPED BASS. Retrieved 2020, from http://www.asmfc.org/files/Meetings/2019WinterMeeting/AtlStripedBassBoardPresentati ons_Feb2019.pdf

Dancy, K. (2016). Memorandum: Review of Summer Flounder Specifications for 2017-2018. Retrieved 2020, from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/511cdc7fe4b00307a2628ac6/t/579b9614ff7c50855 8077b27/1469814296630/Tab05_SF-Specifications2017-2018.pdf

NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF FISH & WILDLIFE MARINE FISHERIES ADMINISTRATION COMMERCIAL REGULATIONS. (2020). Retrieved 2020, from https://www.njfishandwildlife/com/pdf/2020/comregs20.pdf

Oswald, J. (2014, June 06). Bycatch report reveals startling fluke numbers. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.app.com/story/sports/outdoors/fishing/hook-line-and sinker/2014/05/29/fluke-bycatch-waste-noaa/9736765/

Radel, D. (2020, March 09). What you need to know about N.J.’s new striped bass regulations. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.app.com/story/sports/outdoors/fishing/hook-line-and sinker/2020/03/09/nj-fishing-striped-bass-regulations-2020/4999812002/

Striped Bass Fact Sheet. (2018). Retrieved 2020, from https://www.njfishandwildlife/com/pdf/deliverartdel_sp_strbass.pdf

Witek, C. (2019, January 02). Slot Limits No Panacea for Summer Flounder. Retrieved 2020, from https://conservefish.org/2019/01/02/slot-limits-no-panacea-for-summer-flounder/

Alaina is an environmental studies major with minors in anthropology and Chesapeake Regional studies. She is passionate and curious about the intersections of history, culture, and ecology. Through her writing, art, and – hopefully – future career path, she hopes to inspire her fellow humans to embrace their role in the environment and society.

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