ATLANTIC CITY - New Jersey's shell fishermen are concerned cutbacks in state funding for marine enforcement could jeopardize their ability to get their clams and oysters to market.
State Division of Fish and Game Director David Chanda told the state Marine Fisheries Council recently that his department's shellfish program lost $850,000 in funding for the fiscal year budget that began July 1.
Some of the that money would have funded the DEP's patrols of clam beds. The Food and Drug Administration re quires the patrols; without them, the FDA may not approve the shipping of New Jersey shellfish to out-of state markets.
"It's a grave concern for us right now. (DEP) Commissioner (Mark) Mauriello wasn't able to stop it. We, like most everybody else in state government, are reacting to less resources," Chanda said Sept. 3.
The patrols cover back-bay areas to make sure shellfish are not taken from polluted waters. The FDA's approvals for interstate shipping, however, would apply to all shellfish, including ocean clams and even Delaware Bay oysters that are taken from waters that carry no pollution concerns.
"The (state) treasurer's office already came and took the money. It went to the general fund. We're actively trying to get the funds reinstated, or at least get them back for the coming year," said Scot Mackey, a spokesman for the Garden State Seafood Association.
Most shellfish harvested in New Jersey, Mackey pointed out, are shipped out of state. Atlantic City's ocean clamming industry, which harvested 35.3 million pounds of quahogs and surf clams last year worth more than $24 million, ships most of the product out of state for processing. The same is true at other clam docks in the state, including Point Pleasant and the port of Cape May-Wildwood.
The majority of the hard clams caught in the inland bays, an industry worth at least $8 million per year, and Delaware Bay oysters, a $3.6 million-per-year business, also are shipped across state lines.
Todd Reeves, of Harbor House Packing in Port Norris, Cumberland County, sends Delaware Bay oysters all over the country. Reeves said they couldn't sell this year's harvest, expected to be about 80,000 bushels, just in New Jersey.
"It would be crippling to the whole industry. You might as well just pull the plug on this town," Reeves said.
The oyster boats here employ about 100 men, Reeves noted, and there are also jobs in the packing plants and loading docks.
"It's a trickle down. The mechanic, the welder. There's nothing else for people to do around here," Reeves said.
Mackey said the shellfish business is worth more than $42 million per year in New Jersey, and this is just the money paid to fishermen. He said the value is multiplied six times as the product is processed and other businesses cash in on the economic ripple effect of the industry.
"That's $250 million as it goes through all the processors, canners, shippers and everybody," Mackey said.
The association is stressing that the money generates state tax revenue, including sales and income taxes.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said the state needs to protect fishing jobs and can't allow tax revenues to be lost, which he noted is leading to "raiding of funds" from some programs to begin with.
"At a time of declining revenues we can't allow policies to be implemented that reduce revenues further," said Van Drew.
Waters known to be polluted are broken down into low-, medium- and high-risk zones with the number of required patrols based on the risks. Darlene Yuhas, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the state is currently meeting "the minimum basic level of compliance" for the patrols.
Assistant DEP Commissioner Amy Cradic said the FDA assesses the program every year and has pushed for more patrols. Cradic said in spite of the cuts the state would continue to meet the FDA requirements.
"These are tough budget times. We recognize the importance of the industry, and if we need to prioritize funding we will do what is necessary. We're meeting the basic level of compliance and we meet annually with the FDA to make sure we are meeting that mandate," said Cradic.
FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said that if a state falls out of compliance, an action plan is worked out to meet the mandate. Kwisnek said taking away shellfish transportation approval is rare but she noted it would apply even to shellfish caught in other states but shipped through New Jersey. While it would apply to all clams and oysters, Kwisnek said with scallops it would only apply to those shippped in the shell or the roe of scallops. Sea scallops are the No. 1 catch in New Jersey but most are shucked at sea and only the meat is shipped. Kwisnek these would not fall under the program.
Chanda said the division's inland programs might not be as hard hit because they have dedicated funding from hunting and freshwater fishing licenses. The marine programs do not have dedicated funding and those funds were cut.
"There's obviously going to be an impact on our programs including habitat restoration, law enforcement and clamming work," Chanda said.
Ocean clams, including surf clams and ocean quahogs, used to be processed in New Jersey but other than one processing plant in Millville, Cumberland County, most are now shipped to factories in the south. The industry for years has blamed strict DEP requirements for driving clam-shucking plants out of state.
Hard clams, which are caught in the bays, are in demand at the New Jersey shore in the summer months, but most are shipped to New York, Philadelphia and other markets the rest of the year.
While all catches of ocean clams are logged, reporting requirements for bay hard clams are not as strict; a 2000 study indicated that the $8 million-per-year industry is underreported by at least half.
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