MIDDLE TOWNSHIP - Jimmy Layton fishes 300 crab pots in the Delaware Bay and fills each with about 2 pounds of menhaden that he catches himself.
The bait is fresh and catching it himself saves money, which translates into higher profits and lower prices for the blue crabs that his father, Fred Layton, sells at a crab stand on Route 47 in the township. Frozen menhaden goes for about 30 cents per pound, or $180 for one day of baiting the traps.
But a state law regulating menhaden approved in June somehow left out the Delaware Bay crab fishermen. Permits, called a landing license, are now needed to harvest menhaden. They were given out to fishermen catching menhaden in the ocean, but the Catch-22 of sorts for Delaware Bay fishermen is that to get a permit, they have to show a history of menhaden catches over the years.
The ocean fishermen had to report their catches, so there was no problem showing a history of harvests. Delaware Bay gill-netters, who use a type of net that catches fish by the gills, never had the requirement to report their catches, so they have no catch history to show. Now they are having a hard time getting the new permits to fish.
"It really messes me up if they stop me from getting my own bait. I'll have to spend my own money and burn more fuel to pick it up. I don't know how they missed us. I've had a Delaware Bay gill-net license for years," Layton said.
Fred Layton said there are at least 100 fishermen in Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties impacted by the bill. Menhaden isn't just used to catch crabs. Delaware Bay crabbers are involved in other fisheries during the year that also use the oily, bony fish, also known as bunker. Jimmy Layton said he freezes some menhaden and uses it during winter months to catch perch. Fred Layton said he sells menhaden to recreational striped bass anglers.
The state Department of Environmental Protection, given the job of enforcing the new menhaden law, is aware of the problem and has called a special meeting for Aug. 12 to discuss it with advisers to the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council.
"We've set up a meeting to discuss the issues the legislation has caused. It's mostly from Delaware Bay gill-netters who were not required to report landings. We can make modifications once we collect information from the other gear types. It's an issue, but I don't think it's an issue that can't be resolved," said Brandon Muffley, who heads the state Bureau of Marine Fisheries.
Muffley said reported landings show purse seine fishermen catch about 99 percent of the menhaden, but there are other gear types in use, including cast nets, pound nets and gill-nets.
New Jersey fishermen up until this year could go out and catch as much menhaden as they wanted. That changed in December, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a compact of East Coast states that regulates migratory fish, decided to give each state a quota to try and increase the stocks of this important forage fish.
The ASMFC set an East Coast quota of 170,800 metric tons for 2013, a 20 percent reduction over average catches between 2009 and 2011. Each state received a quota, with New Jersey getting about 11 percent of the catch. The state's share was almost 20 million metric tons, or 42 million pounds. New Jersey caught 65 million pounds in 2011 and 80 million pounds in 2012, so reductions were inevitable.
The Delaware Bay gill-netters, however, complain that 95 percent of the state quota has gone to ocean fishermen who have been required to report their landings since 1989.
The sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said the bill had to go through quickly or out-of-state fishermen would have taken New Jersey's quota. He noted a special legislative session was held just to vote on the bill.
"If the legislation wasn't in place, there wouldn't be menhaden for anybody," Van Drew said.
He also noted flexibility was written into the bill so the Department of Environmental Protection and the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council could find a way to give permits to the Delaware Bay fishermen.
"I believe they're going to get their menhaden. If they don't do right by those guys, I'll be at their throat," Van Drew said.
A solution has special significance to local crabber Tom Hawk, who has been fishing the bay for 35 years. Hawk said he used to fish for eels but a state ban on catching horseshoe crabs, the prime eel bait, made him switch to crabbing. The only other choice was to buy horseshoe crabs from other states at inflated prices. Now Hawk may lose the prime blue crab bait. Hawk said the ASMFC's cuts to menhaden catches are likely to increase the prices as well.
"It's going to kill me for sure. I've always caught my own bunker," Hawk said.
He also noted that when new gill-net regulations were enacted on the bay more than two decades ago, with no new entrants allowed, all the existing fishermen had to prove their catch history.
"They keep telling us to show our history. I'm getting tired of trying to prove myself all the time," Hawk said.
Muffley said there is precedent for giving permits without catch history, called "proxy landings," which were done once for Delaware Bay shad fishermen.
One issue is that some of the bay fishermen had federal permits for some fisheries, such as bluefish, and were required to report bunker landings under this permit but did not.
"We don't want to give people rights they shouldn't have," Muffley said.
Fred Layton said he has no problem excluding these fishermen.
"If they had that permit, they had to report," Layton said.
Layton argues bay gill-netters already have state licenses to catch and sell fish, and charging a separate license fee for an individual fish is overkill.
"Now they want an additional $150, if you can even get it. It's a real hardship with the economy as depressed as it is," Layton said.
The bill requires licenses to catch, unload or sell menhaden. License fees and fines collected from violations go to a new state account for managing the quota, biological monitoring, and enforcement.
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