Delaware sank its first boat to create an artificial reef in January 1999, the tugboat Delilah, but anglers really didn’t get out to fish it until April.

When they finally got there, Delaware Reef Coordinator Jeff Tinsman said, it was almost unfishable.

“By April, it was a spider web of pot lines,” he said. “They couldn’t fish, and it’s just gotten worse since then.”

Similar battles are fought all summer long on New Jersey’s 15 artificial reefs as the fishing hooks of anglers compete with the fishing pots placed there by commercial fishermen. The battle could soon increase based on a landmark case in Delaware.

Delaware ended up building nine reefs in the Delaware Bay and outlawed fish potting on them. The only gear allowed is a spear or a hook-and-line. The Delaware Bay, however, is in state waters. Delaware constructed five more reefs in federal waters, which begin three miles off the ocean coast on federal land open to both commercial and recreational fishermen. Delaware received permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under rules that specify they benefit both commercial and recreational fishing.

But Delaware is moving to change the rules and, if successful, New Jersey’s artificial reefs could become a battleground as recreational anglers seek to push commercial fishermen away from coveted fishing grounds.

Delaware is asking the federal government to turn the artificial reefs into “Special Management Zones,” or SMZs, where only hook-and-line or spear fishing is allowed. Commercial fishermen who use pots to trap black sea bass, lobster, tautog and other delicacies of the deep would be banned.

New Jersey anglers are watching the Delaware case closely. They land about 20 percent of their annual recreational catch on the reefs that extend from Cape May to Sandy Hook, and they complain about catching their hooks on gear from the 50 or so legal pot fishermen and many more doing it illegally, often for the Asian live-fish restaurant trade.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing off Delaware and New Jersey in federal waters, approved Delaware’s proposal for SMZ status last month in an 11-3 vote with two abstentions. It now goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that makes the final decision.

“This would set a precedent,” said Richard Seagraves, a fishery management specialist with the council.

If the NMFS concurs with the proposal, a proposed rule would follow, with chances for public comment. If the agency doesn’t agree, it has to return to council with an explanation, Seagraves said.

If approved, a similar proposal may follow for the 13 artificial reefs in federal waters off New Jersey. Public hearings on the Delaware proposal were held along the coast. Seagraves said that at the one in Toms River, held in January, New Jersey anglers submitted a 4,000-signature petition opposing pots on reefs.

Bill Figley, who ran New Jersey’s reef program for years and is now an advocate for eliminating pots, said previous attempts through legislation and regulation have failed.

“Our argument is it’s a public park designed for the average fisherman, just an average guy with a 20-foot boat to go out fishing and catch a couple fish with a hook-and-line,” Figley said.

He said New Jersey sport-fishing groups support an SMZ initiative. Figley said the state Department of Environmental Protection got the federal permit for the reefs, and only DEP Commissioner Bob Martin can apply with the council for SMZ status.

“We were really upset he didn’t do it at the same time Delaware did,” Figley said.

Most fish species are divided between the commercial and recreational fishing sectors by quotas. The annual black sea bass harvest, for example, is divided so that 51 percent goes to recreational and 49 percent to commercial. The fluke, or summer flounder, harvest is split so that 60 percent is given to commercial fishermen and 40 percent to recreational.

The two sides will catch their fish, but the key to reef fishing is that fish concentrate on them so it is more efficient. This is especially important when the price of fuel is as high as it is right now.

While there is some battling over the resource itself, the bigger issue is so-called gear conflicts between pot fishermen and hook-and-line anglers. A gear conflict is an incident in which sports fishermen claim they lost fishing tackle because it became ensnared by a commercial fisherman’s gear. Tinsman said that under SMZ status, commercial fishermen could continue fishing the reefs, but only with spears or hooks.

Anglers argue they pay the largest share toward reef creation through private contributions and federal excise taxes on fishing tackle and motor boat fuel that go into a sport-fish restoration fund.

Due to gear conflicts in New Jersey, these federal funds of about $253,000 annually for reef construction, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were redirected to other programs two years ago. Delaware is worried about its funding of about $600,000 per year, and that was a factor in applying for SMZ status. Unlike New Jersey, Tinsman said, Delaware has no other funding source for its reefs.

New Jersey has toyed with other solutions, including a proposal by Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, to prohibit pots on the two New Jersey reefs in state waters from May 15 to Oct. 1. Those reefs have minimal potting for lobsters, a commercial species that can’t be caught by hook-and-line, so it would limit effects on those fishermen. Pot fishermen in 2007 proposed changing to gear less likely to snag fishing lines, but anglers rejected the idea. There have also been proposals to have commercial-only reefs in New Jersey.

Walt Chew, a retired commercial fisherman from Cape May County fighting for continued pot fishing, argues it doesn’t matter who pays the most since the reefs are in federal waters.

He noted the federal law governing reefs states they are to enhance recreation and commercial fishing opportunities, increase the production of fishery products, increase the energy efficiencies of fishing, contribute to U.S. coastal economies and improve fishery habitat.

Any decision to restrict use of the reefs — even if it came from other federal agencies, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service — could result in the Army Corps of Engineers pulling permits on the existing ones.

But Seagraves said gear conflicts could prompt U.S. Fish and Wildlife to stop funding artificial reefs, because those funds come directly from fees the sport fishermen pay.

“In essence, it would be the end of the reef programs,” Seagraves said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711