The state Department of Environmental Protection is trying to convince the federal government not to ban shark fishing off the New Jersey coast because it would hurt the tourism industry.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or ASMFC, in February declared New Jersey out of compliance with rules governing 40 species of coastal sharks. The problem was widely blamed on bureaucratic delays and not any substantial issues with the requirements, which included 22 regulations relating to commercial and recreational shark fishing.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently considering the next step after the state was declared out of compliance, which could be a ban on shark fishing. Such a ban could be declared within a matter of days by the Department of Commerce, the parent agency of the NMFS, or the state could be given a longer time period to comply.

The DEP announced Tuesday afternoon that acting Commissioner Bob Martin sent a March 1 letter to NMFS Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Eric Schwaab telling him that reaching compliance is a top priority for New Jersey. He blamed the bureaucratic mix-up on the prior administration of Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

"In these challenging economic times, I am deeply concerned about hurting New Jersey's struggling fishermen and associated businesses through no fault of their own. New Jersey is planning to implement the required measures on an expedited timetable," Martin wrote Schwaab.

NMFS spokeswoman Liz Crapo on Tuesday afternoon said the agency had not received the letter yet so it could not comment on it.

Even with an expedited timetable, Martin estimates the state could not reach compliance until July 19. The state's Administrative Procedure Act calls for a lengthy process to enact new rules, which includes filing a proposal with the Office of Administrative Law, publishing it in the New Jersey Register, hosting a 60-day public comment period, and other steps before adoption.

The state has been out of compliance since Jan. 1, 2009, but was already given a one-year extension.

"A number of states had problems, so the (ASMFC) board gave all those states another year," said Robert Beal, director of the ASMFC's Interstate Fisheries Management Program.

The approval process began in November 2006 when the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council approved the ASMFC shark plan. It was sent to the DEP in December 2006 with the council expecting approval for the 2007 season. The plan was shuffled among state agencies and reportedly sat on Corzine's desk unsigned for at least three months.

Martin said a moratorium on shark fishing would be especially detrimental to party and charter boats that specialize in such trips. He mentioned seven New Jersey shore shark tournaments that draw more than 4,000 participants seeking more than $500,000 in prize money.

"The tournaments generate significant tourism dollars through purchases of tackle, meals, lodging and fuel," Martin wrote.

The state also has a commercial shark fishing industry that could be shut out of fishing for such species as mako, blue, smooth dogfish and thresher.

Beal said spiny dogfish sharks, an important commercial species, are not part of the plan as they are managed separately.

Marty Buzas, a commercial fisherman from Cape May Court House who depends on sharks for 60 percent of his annual income, was happy the state finally got involved.

"I'm glad Trenton finally noticed. I think its wonderful Trenton is working for us and not against us. I think that's great," Buzas said.

Buzas, however, noted nothing has really been accomplished yet.

Martin stressed that commercial fishermen already hold federal permits to fish in federal waters outside three miles so they already comply with the shark plan.

But even if fishermen comply in federal waters, the state enforces a "landing law," which imposes stricter state restrictions even on fish caught outside three miles.

Martin also noted shark tournaments held in federal waters also comply. He said the shark fishery in state waters inside three miles is "relatively minor."

Martin also argued the rules would be posted on the state Division of Fish and Wildlife Website and sent to fishing clubs, and bait & tackle shops with a request for voluntary compliance prior to the rule adoption in July.

But even with all these efforts at compliance it may not matter if the shark plan is not officially adopted.

Martin said New Jersey is committed to implementing the shark plan and hopes for a favorable determination that a moratorium not be imposed.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

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