OCEAN CITY — It’s a sunny, gusty morning at the Great Egg U.S. Coast Guard Station. Waves chopping, two marine conservation officers hop into a 21-foot Ripcraft boat for their morning patrol.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, New Jersey’s saltwater-recreation fishing industry ranked third in jobs created in 2015, trailing only the endless-summer states of Florida and California. Sales totaled $1.8 million with 4.3 million fishing trips.
That makes for a very busy summer for Capt. Jason Snellbaker, of Egg Harbor Township, Officer Allison Shepherd and the 13 marine conservation officers at the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. According to Snellbaker, they cover nearly 150 square miles of water, including in South Jersey.
Marine conservation officers enforce wildlife laws and regulations.
“During the winter months, we focus more on commercial fishing. The summer is a lot nicer out. You have more recreational fishing. You have a lot of crabbing. Different areas open up for shellfish harvest, too,” Shepherd said.
The Ocean City outpost is opened only in the summer to handle the higher demand from visitor volume.
Marine Conservation Officers need to be self-motivated. Patrolling many square miles, many times by themselves, they have to know where the best places to protect the public will be and the best times to find poachers.
“If we weren’t here, greed would take over,” Snellbaker said.
Launching into the Great Egg Harbor Bay, Snellbaker controls the boat. He picks out a pair of binoculars and scans the water. Few other are vessels out this Thursday morning, likely because of the strong winds.
Shepherd and Snellbaker then zip up to the Middle River. Holding onto a rail for balance, they scan the commercial crab pots. The legal, commercial crabbers have crab traps with flotation devices to identity to whom they belong. They also have a non-floating, thick line.
However, in the midst of the vibrant yellow floats, a blue empty oil container can be seen.
That is a sign of a recreational crabber, Snellbaker said. Shepherd takes a look. It has a floating line, a violation of regulations. In addition, it was not attended to. Regulations state all crab pots must be checked at least every 72 hours.
Shepherd pulls out the crab pot. It is covered in mud and seaweed. In it, a singular crab. She puts the yellow trap in the boat to take back to shore, where she then puts it back in the water.
About an hour later, the pair check on two men on a rental boat out of Ocean City. With the large number of regulations, marine conservation officers do “checks” on those on the water. This is different than a typical police officer, who needs a reason to stop or speak to you. Oftentimes, this is just a friendly visit.
“Hey, you guys catching any fish?” Shepherd asked the pair.
“No. Someone else must have caught them,” said one in the boat.
While one person in the rental boat makes conversation, Shepherd asks the other where they would store their fish. They were going out for fluke. The man points, and she makes a check.
“Nope, there’s no fish,” Shepherd told Snellbaker.
The two say goodbye to the recreational fishermen and go back to shore.
Their work isn’t just done on the water. Marine conservation officers make sure your lunch or dinner is made with fresh, healthy seafood.
Snellbaker said officers inspect seafood restaurants to make sure they are purchasing fish from registered dealers, who in turn buy them from registered commercial fishermen and shellfishers. This way, if there is a health issue, it can be tracked.
Bacteria can be present in the waters.
“After major rain events, you’ll get an increase in bacteria. This time of year, we make sure that the oyster boats in the Delaware Bay are properly shaded. We make sure that they get oysters back in refrigeration on time, we can keep bacteria levels at a minimum and keep the waters opened during the summertime,” Snellbaker said.
Shepherd is in charge of Cumberland and Salem counties’ waters, where the multimillion-dollar oyster industry is located.
But outreach is a big part of an officer’s everyday life.
“We’ll come up to a recreational crabber who’s maybe never done it before. We’ll ask how they’re doing and they’ll say really, really good. We’ll check crabs and they’ll all be OK (of legal size) and then they’ll ask, ‘How big do they have to be?’ People are afraid of us at first, but once everything goes OK for them, they’ll open up,” Shepherd said.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people say thank you after issuing a summons,” Snellbaker said. That and their love of the great outdoors makes it all worth it for the marine conservation officers.
“I get to be outside all the time. Typically, I’m hanging out, talking to people that are having a great time. It’s generally a very pleasant conversation with everybody. It’s a different kind of policing. I’m dealing with happy people,” Shepherd said.