MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — A longtime ban on winter dredging, designed to protect a fish that isn’t even here in great numbers, has been lifted.

The move is expected to bring a big economic boost to marine businesses and a cost savings for taxpayers on public dredging projects.

The ban on dredging from January through May was designed to protect declining stocks of winter flounder, but it is being lifted from Absecon Inlet south to the Delaware Bay. It will remain in effect in Ocean County.

The move is expected to affect dozens of dredging and beach-replenishment projects. The ban pushed dredging to the warmer months during the height of the boating season, which was bad for business, and it also increased the costs by cutting five months off the year for such work.

The announcement was somewhat dramatic, since it was made at a dredging forum Monday night at the Stone Harbor Golf Club sponsored by the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.

The forum drew 150 people, who cheered the announcement even as many acknowledged that other dredging issues remain, chief among them places to take the dredge spoils.

“The news tonight on winter flounder is spectacular,” said Rick Weber, owner of South Jersey Marina on Cape May Harbor.

Weber, who has worked to lift the ban for two decades, sees immediate effects for marina owners getting work done during the best time of year to do it. He said the Cape May-Lewes Ferry will use the offseason to dredge the Cape May Canal entrance for the first time in years, while beach replenishment projects in Cape May and Atlantic counties will not be delayed. It also helps commercial fishing docks, including several in the Port of Cape May.

“We will save money in dredging costs by having a longer opportunity to dredge. I think it will save municipal governments millions of dollars,” Weber said.

Several projects going on now had been expected to stop Jan. 1, but that will no longer be necessary — although each individual permit to dredge still must be modified to remove the time-of-year restriction.

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, the keynote speaker at the forum titled “Our Economy is Aground,” welcomed the announcement.

“That was a big breakthrough tonight as about 30 projects had to stop in December. This is enormous. This was killing a lot of projects and adding to the costs of mobilizing and demobilizing the dredges,” LoBiondo said.

Rick Traber, owner of the Pier 47 Marina in Wildwood, urged those at the conference to join the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, a group fighting for dredging solutions.

Traber said the MTA is fighting for more funding for dredging and trying to develop beneficial uses for the dredge spoils. Traber, a past president of the association, said it has 300 members.

“We need 400 members. There’s strength in numbers. We need a lot of people to get behind this,” Traber said

The forum delved into other issues, such as finding new places to dispose of the dredge materials. Approved storage sites, usually on the salt marshes nearby, are filling up.

“We’re building material mountains. It needs a place. There needs to be a plan,” Weber said.

LoBiondo said Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Martin recently met with dredging advocates and pledged to help find solutions.

“There really is some progress being made,” LoBiondo said.

An experimental project to use the materials to restore marshland is set to take place in Fortescue, Cumberland County, and LoBiondo said this “really has potential.”

Sam Reynolds, regulatory chief with the Army Corps of Engineers, cautioned that such projects can’t be about getting rid of dredge spoils, but have to show benefits to the area where they are placed.

“You have to show there is no preferred alternative in the uplands,” said Reynolds.

Spoils with high sand content often are approved for placement on beaches.

Sand mine owners Victoria Heun Pierson and her brother Phil Heun have been blending spoils with mined sand.

“We’re running out of virgin materials. We see this as an opportunity to use this material. However, we need help from regulatory agencies to do that,” said Pierson.

They also have to overcome some public perceptions. As in the early days of recycling concrete and asphalt, there is a stigma to the materials.

“We’ve had a very difficult time finding end users. This is the stigma of dredge spoils. They don’t want it on recreational facilities or even the shoulder of roads. They think it’s a polluted material, and we in this room know it isn’t.” said Heun.

Contact: 609-463-6711

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