New Jersey menhaden fishermen already face a big cut in catches this year, but the state Senate on Monday adopted legislation that would at least prevent boats from other states from poaching the Garden State's quota.

The Senate, at a special meeting just to consider the legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, approved it by a vote of 28-0. The Assembly passed it May 20 in a 72-0-5 vote.

"The over-fishing of our coastal waters by out-of-state fishermen hurts our economy, our fishermen and cuts into our quota. We have to make sure that New Jersey's menhaden supply is available to our local fishermen and not wiped out by those from other states," Van Drew said.

The bill now goes to Gov. Chris Christie, who is expected to sign it as the state Department of Environmental Protection has been closely involved with the initiative.

"We worked closely with the DEP and we hope he will sign it," said Scot C. Mackey, of the Cape May-based Garden State Seafood Association.

Mackey said New Jersey fishermen already faced stiff harvest cuts of menhaden, also known as bunker, which is mainly caught locally to be sold as bait. The oily and bony fish is not a high-value fishery such as scallops or flounder.

It was only a $3 million fishery in New Jersey in 2012, but Mackey said its value may go beyond dockside revenues, because it's an important bait to both commercial and recreational fishing operations.

Up until this year, New Jersey fishermen could go out and catch as much menhaden as they wanted.

That changed in December, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a compact of East Coast states that regulates migratory fish, decided to give each state a quota.

Menhaden are a key forage fish for larger and more commercially valuable species. The ASMFC wants to increase the spawning stock.

The ASMFC set an East Coast quota of 170,800 metric tons for 2013, a 20 percent reduction over average catches between 2009 and 2011.

Each state received a quota, with New Jersey getting about 11 percent of the catch. Mackey said the state's share was almost 20 million metric tons, or 42 million pounds. New Jersey caught 65 million pounds in 2011 and 80 million pounds in 2012.

While New Jersey catches menhaden for bait, Virginia has a much larger fishery that processes the menhaden into fertilizer, pet food, industrial products, dietary supplements and other products.

"Under the ASMFC plan, Virginia got over 80 percent of the quota," Mackey said.

Van Drew's bill prevents fishermen from other states from catching menhaden off New Jersey and then offloading them at New Jersey docks, which would result in that poundage coming off the state's share.

"It will protect our guys. If we don't do this, we could have Delaware or Virginia fleets catching menhaden, landing them in New Jersey, and it goes off our quota. They could land it in New Jersey, take it to other states in trucks, and we get whacked," Van Drew said.

The bill sets up a licensing program to control the fish. Licenses, linked to individual boats and vessel owners, are needed to catch menhaden but they are also needed to unload and sell it. It gives the purse seine fishery 95 percent of the catch.

This is a type of fishery, popular in Cape May, where pilots on spotter planes locate schools of menhaden. Small boats are used to surround the schools with a net and the fish are transferred to a larger boat using what is known as a "dip net."

The fish cannot be transferred via fish pumps, a method used by the large industrial menhaden fishery based in Virginia. The state is reserving 5 percent of its catch for smaller fisheries such as those using gill nets or pound nets.

After the state's quota is filled, the fishery will be closed as any overage would go against the next year's quota.

The bill doesn't completely stop catches from out-of-state boats. If the boat has a history of unloading menhaden at New Jersey docks then it could still take part in the state's fishery. Mackey said this is a small percentage of New Jersey's catch.

The bill would provide separate license fees for in-state and out-of-state fishermen.

Licensing fees and fines collected from violations will go to a new state account for managing the quota, biological monitoring, and enforcement.

"Overhauling our licensing structure will ensure those fishing off our coast are not depleting our menhaden allocation to the detriment of our state. These new regulations will protect New Jersey and the thousands of jobs that are vital to our residents and to our economy," Van Drew said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

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