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New Jersey is very interested in a new federal grant program designed to create more black sea bass habitat and also to answer scientific questions about what this particular fish needs to thrive in mid-Atlantic waters.

Black sea bass are both a popular fish for anglers in New Jersey and an important catch for commercial fishermen. For a type of fish that relies on underwater structure, which ran range from a shipwreck to a natural rocky outcrop, a key question is whether building artificial reefs creates new black sea bass or simply concentrates ones already in the ocean.

“That would be a great question to ask. We’d absolutely be interested in that,” said Lisa Havel, a coordinator for the Atlantic Coastal Fish Habitat Partnership or ACFHP.

The partnership, through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is offering grants of up to $225,000 for projects that restore black sea bass habitat or qualify as research projects to learn more about the habitat needs of a fairly strange fish species, known for, among other things, the ability to change sexes (hermaphrodite transition) as needed.

The restoration or research proposals are for a region that runs from Long Island Sound to Cape Hatteras. While black sea bass range from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, there is a distinct population in the Mid-Atlantic region the study wants to address.

The state Department of Environmental Protection oversees artificial reefs off the coast and is interested in the program. DEP spokeswoman Caryn Shinske said the agency has reached out to both Rutgers University and Stockton University to see if they are interested in being partners. The grants are available to local, state and federal government organizations but also to academic institutions, conservation groups and other non-governmental organizations.

“We are aware of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission program for black sea bass projects and are reviewing options that would use some or all of the $225,000 available. Although it is very early in the process at this point, we feel the best opportunity to obtain any funding is developing a cooperative program with academia, with potential assistance from the fishing industry,” said Shinske.

In recent years fishery managers have concentrated on habitat issues as one key to building healthier fish stocks. The National Fish Habitat Action Plan, which includes 33 states, in 2009 led to the ACFHP program. Every marine species has different habit needs so an effort has been make to identify “essential fish habitats,” or EFHs, for each species. The grant program could help refine the EFH description for black sea bass.

There is debate about whether commercial fishing practices, such as trawling the ocean floor, has reduced black sea bass habitat. The species needs what is known as “structure,” but it could be as simple as mussel beds, rocks or coral on the sea floor. Trawling could damage this structure, although some argue the barren sandy coast off New Jersey never had much of it anyway. Some argue there may actually be more structure on the sea floor nowadays than in pre-historic times due to shipwrecks, artificial reefs and other changes created by people.

Marine scientists know black sea bass rely on structure, yet don’t fully understand its function for shelter, food, movement, reproduction, productivity and other habitat needs. Should more artificial reeds be created or should natural reef-like conditions be restored?

Havel said they are open to proposals that create more habitat but also to ideas that help identify what the habitat needs are. Any proposal that is accepted would be required to have at least three years of scientific monitoring.

“We are open to a restoration project but we’re also looking for science-based questions to be answered,” said Havel.

Projects must be done in coordination with the state’s artificial reef manager, which in New Jersey is done within the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

“Any outside organization that plans to submit a proposal on any permitted reef work must work with the state reef coordinator, so it is therefore likely that DEP would be involved in some aspect of any proposal involving New Jersey waters,” said Shinske.

The grants allow work on existing reefs but can’t be used to create new ones. New Jersey has 15 artificial reefs made of ships, tanks, rocks, subway cars, concrete, and other materials. About 50 percent of the state’s party and charter boats use the reefs as an estimated 20 percent of all fish caught by anglers are landed from them. Commercial fishermen also use pots and hooks to fish them but this sometimes leads to conflicts and the state is planning a new reef just for anglers.

The question of whether artificial reefs produce or simply attract fish has been debated for years. The initiative hopes to answer this question while learning more about the optimal materials, and their placement, to provide sea bass habitat. The goal is to find out what specific structure is essential to maintain a healthy stock size.

The study could also provide important data on other wreck fish that rely on structure, such as tautog. Black sea bass and “tog” are the mainstays of the party and charter boats that fish the wrecks and the reefs. Black sea bass are also an important commercial catch with the East Coast quota divided up with 51 percent going to recreational anglers and 49 to the commercial industry.

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