Conservation zones on Barnegat Bay, part of Gov. Chris Christie’s 10-point plan to bring the waterway back to its former glory, will not exclude recreational anglers and boaters from accessing the bay, supporters claim. But there is some skepticism over the scope of regulations that could be imposed on potential conservation zones – areas identified as needing special protections from human encroachment – on the bay.
Some have questioned whether the zones could lead to never-ending “no wake” zones on the bay or restrictions on fishing or crabbing.
State officials passed out a map of the bay at a stakeholder meeting held in Toms River Wednesday which showed 16 areas marked off as being environmentally sensitive, subject to damage from the impact of boats. While those marked off areas may or may not eventually be turned into conservation zones, the regulations associated with those zones, if any, have yet to be decided.
But nearly everyone in the meeting room at the Cattus Island County Park complex, including local environmentalists and political leaders, said personal watercrafts (or PWCs, commonly referred to as jet-skis) often have the most impact on the submerged aquatic vegetation that biologists say are key to the bay’s survival. PWC operators, they say, usually ride close to shore, some of the most sensitive areas where juvenile finfish and shellfish are protected in the sea grass beds.
‘Big Al’ Wutkowski, a Point Pleasant resident who was named Barnegat Bay Guardian this year, said in his volunteer patrols of the waterway during the summer of 2011, he spotted PWC users wantonly ignoring state boating laws that prevent high-speed driving within 100 feet of marshlands, and shockingly, often saw operators of PWCs arming themselves with baseball bats and intentionally hitting birds that got in the way as they motored through shallow, grassy areas.
“They don’t know the law, they don’t want to know the law,” said Wutkowski, of PWC operators.
But some at the meeting wondered if placing certain, sensitive areas into designated conservation zones could impact other users of the bay, including anglers and recreational boaters whose propeller-driven boats are incapable of traveling at high speeds near marshlands.
“Boating is so much different than personal watercrafts,” said Recreational Fishing Alliance Executive Director Jim Donofrio. “You pride yourself in navigation skills, learning operations. You have a whole different mentality. The jet-skiers are hated by the fishermen, the clammers, the oystermen and the duck hunters.”
The bay already has one conservation zone, located in the area of the sedge islands behind Island Beach State Park, north of Barnegat Inlet. Slow speed boating is required in that area to protect submerged vegetation.
Dr. Jim Merrit of the state Division of Fish and WIldlife helps oversee that conservation zone and said boaters and anglers are not only allowed – but encouraged – to come into the zone and fish.
“Boating and fishing is encouraged on a recreational level,” he said, adding that the shallow water around the islands creates a natural buffer to fast-moving operations. But PWCs still wander into the area despite buoys deployed marking the area as a no wake zone, he said.
Merrit said the purpose of conservation zones is to encourage “low impact” access to sensitive areas.
“We’re not talking about setting aside these areas and keeping people out,” Merrit said. “To me, it’s about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In New Jersey, it’s always a struggle.”
Proposals to expand “no wake” zones in the bay, where boats are required to proceed at speeds of only a few miles per hour, could result in controversy, however. Some of the areas identified in the state’s map as sensitive border or even cross into heavily-used boat channels, including the Double Creek and Oyster Creek channels which lead to Barnegat Inlet, and portions of the intracoastal waterway in the open bay between Barnegat Light and North Beach.
If PWCs have been identified as the primary culprit for degrading submerged vegetation, and propeller-driven boats cannot travel at high speed in shallow water, existing laws barring high-speed travel within 100 feet of the shoreline should be enforced before new regulations are enacted, some argued.
“What we are often against are additional regulations compiled on other regulations,” said attorney Ray Bogan, who represents the Recreational Fishing Alliance and the United Boatmen, as well as other boating and fishing organizations. “Education and enforcement can be implemented on existing regulations and have an extraordinary benefit for the bay.”
“One thing that’s always discouraging about new legislation is, ‘would you please enforce the laws already on the books before you start talking about new ones?’ said Rick Bushnell, a Surf City resident who founded the ReClam the Bay organization which is helping to restore shellfish populations.
Bushnell also said the term “conservation zone” should be replaced with “reconstruction zone.”
“To preserve that bay would be to preserve something that really needs to be improved,” he said.
Stakeholder meetings will continue in the future as officials attempt to map out a plan on how to implement low-impact boating and, potentially, set up conservation zones. DEP officials at the meeting said they hoped to set up educational programs this winter and work with the media to get the message out about existing regulations. Conservations zones are the final point of Christie's 10 point bay restoration plan.