An endangered species listing for the Atlantic sturgeon is threatening New Jersey’s spring trawl survey and creating concerns it could eventually halt some fishing operations.

The state is struggling to conform to the federal mandate to protect sturgeon and for now is telling fishermen to keep fishing.

“As of right now, they should continue as usual,” said Brandon Muffley, head of the N.J. Bureau of Marine Fisheries.

Sturgeon, a prehistoric fish once abundant in New Jersey, particularly in the Delaware Bay, will officially become an endangered species April 6.

Once that happens there could be severe penalties for hurting one, even by accident. It could lead to enforcement action by the federal government or lawsuits filed by environmental groups, which has happened with marine turtles.

The immediate concern is the trawl survey, though Muffley stressed “there is a little bit of time” to find solutions since the listing is still a month away.

Stony Brook University, which helps conduct New Jersey’s spring trawl survey, is backing out of the project due to concerns about what would happen if they hurt a sturgeon, Russ Allen, of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, announced at Thursday’s N.J. Marine Fisheries Council meeting.

“They said they won’t do it because they’re afraid they’ll get sued. We’re running into trouble already,” said Allen, who acts as proxy for Fish and Wildlife Director Dave Chanda on certain issues including sturgeon.

Trawl surveys, in which nets are used to scour the ocean floor, collect data used to manage fisheries. These plans help determine how many fish can be harvested.

“It’s used for all our coast-wide stock assessments,” Muffley said.

New Jersey has been doing trawl surveys since 1988. Stony Brook supplies the 80-foot vessel, captain and crew, while state biologists are on the trips and gather the data. Surveys are done in January, April, June, August and October.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in February said it would work with the states and the councils that regulate fisheries to come up with plans to avoid conflicts with sturgeon.

“We don’t have answers on how fisheries will stay open. We’re waiting for answers from the National Marine Fisheries Service,” said Allen.

Muffley said the surveys do come across sturgeon.

“Stonybrook scientists come with us to tag sturgeon,” Muffley said.

There is still hope the survey can be saved. Muffley is hoping the NMFS steps in. He notes the survey is funded by a federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Money could be a problem in dealing with the sturgeon issue. New Jersey recently had to close its river herring fishery, and part of its shad fishery, due to lack of funds to collect data. Some argue marine fisheries in the state are woefully underfunded.

Allen said he was given an estimate that the state needs about $1 million for sturgeon work. Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, downplayed that estimate, which Muffley said is it what it cost North Carolina to conform to laws protecting marine turtles.

“It’s all speculative. We don’t know yet,” said Ragonese.

The NMFS is already working on gear to help fishermen avoid sturgeon in federal waters outside three miles. The state regulates water inside three miles.

“We have to come up with a plan in state waters if gill-nets, pots or fykes (nets) interact with a sturgeon. This has implications beyond fisheries, such as dredging operations and boat strikes,” said Muffley.

Muffley said the listing may not just impact commercial fisheries as recreational anglers have also been known to catch sturgeon.

While the NMFS is working on some solutions for ocean fisheries, such as monkfish, a fishery that tends to interact with sturgeon, there is concern about inshore fisheries and especially the Delaware Bay.

It’s not yet clear if it will halt the annual horseshoe crab trawl survey that Virginia Tech does. Nobody is really sure what impacts are ahead as this is the first ocean fish in this region listed as endangered.

“This could stop all fishing in state waters. Stand by for further instructions,” Council Chairman Gil Ewing told fishermen at Thursday’s meeting.

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