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Original Issue

Jersey's scofflaws of the sea

Trouble flares for sportsmen on the East Coast as New Jersey hoods, manning their illegal draggers, threaten lives and vandalize a boat

Jack London and his Tales of the Fish Patrol have nothing on some of the fights between salt water anglers and commercial fishermen. There has always been friction between the two groups along the coasts of the U.S. In Oregon, anglers resent the fact that commercial fishermen are allowed to net steelhead. In Texas, a mutual interest in weakfish and channel bass leads to hot words and the brandishing, occasionally, of firearms. Right now the hottest spot of all is New Jersey, which contests adjacent New York for the honor of being the Albania of conservation. Indeed, the situation in New Jersey has gotten so rotten that a Pennsylvania Congressman, Richard S. Schweiker, has asked the Coast Guard to protect Pennsylvania striped bass fishermen angling on the Jersey coast. In the Sandy Hook Bay area, just south of New York Harbor, gangs of illegal draggers, operating souped-up boats that make them a sort of Hell's Angels afloat, have been terrorizing sportsmen. The hoods have, among other things, flourished baseball bats, vandalized one boat, jammed marine radio channels and uttered death threats at those who would bring them to book.

According to the Jersey Angler's News, a weekly edited by Fred Walczyk of Bayonne, illegal dragging for striped bass and other sport fish has been going on in the state for some time. The draggers are so brazen that a contributor to the paper remarked that he would not be surprised if one crew working out of Port Monmouth returned home with the Romer Shoals Light in its nets. One day last February, for instance, an illegal dragger took 106 boxes of striped bass with a food-market value of $4,000. In New Jersey the striped bass is not subject to commercial catch within three miles of shore, but the law, sportsmen claim, is almost never enforced. Last March, to cite another instance, a report in the Jersey Angler's News stated, "According to information received from the docks, a dragger was caught with net down and hold full of bass. A check with the Conservation Department revealed that the dragger had no fish on board and no net down. Generally, information from the docks is reliable and you begin to wonder if the department really wants to catch them."

Among those who have wondered about the department's policy is State Senator Robert H. Weber. So far the senator has had little luck with his questions, many of which concern Captain David Hart, powerful chairman of the Fish and Game Council, which makes policy for the Fish and Game Division of New Jersey's Conservation Department.

Captain Hart is also a public relations man for two menhaden companies, but he denies that there is any conflict of interest between his PR duties and his position on the council. His PR work for the menhaden companies consists, in his words, of "creating better relations for them and explaining them to groups with which they are in conflict. I show that the interests are compatible. It's my job to prove this." Captain Hart has nothing but scorn for charter-boat captains who complain that menhaden boats take sport fish in Delaware Bay. To Hart such sport-fishermen are looking for a scapegoat for poor fishing days. He strongly resents charges that he has fixed tickets for menhaden fishermen caught violating the law, and he is suing a fellow member of the council, James Charlesworth, who has made such allegations public.

With such turmoil at the top, it is little wonder that a band of pirates has moved into action on the Jersey Shore. In recent weeks floating gangs of organized hoodlums have been dragging illegally right in front of amazed sportsmen, who are accustomed to at least seeing such violators flee from the scene when spotted. Early last month Robert Golardi of New Market, N.J., a sport-fisherman, took his new 26-foot boat, the Evelina, off Sandy Hook to troll for stripers. Golardi was not out long when he came upon an illegal dragger netting stripers. The dragger cut across Golardi's stern and severed his trolling lines. When Golardi protested against this, men on the dragger ominously told him to stay away. He did not, and several other high-powered boats showed up, equipped with 400-hp engines and hot exhausts that enable them to do 50 mph. They began to circle the Evelina at high speeds. In the ensuing high waves the Evelina was tossed about and Golardi suffered a painful leg injury.

On returning to the boat basin, Golardi and other sportsmen complained to the Fish and Game Division. The division has long claimed it lacked patrol boats, but this time the sportsmen volunteered their own and on August 5, Golardi, along with his father and Conservation Officer George Aver, embarked on the first patrol. They approached a dragger near Romer Shoals Light, and the conservation officer identified himself. The Evelina was soon surrounded by half a dozen hot-rod draggers sending up high waves, and the hoodlums aboard shouted that they would sink the Evelina and everyone aboard. When Golardi radioed for help, a state patrol boat chugged up, only to be surrounded itself. Finally Golardi succeeded in rousing the Coast Guard and, as the Coast Guard patrol arrived, the draggers sped away, vowing to get Golardi "on the beach." When Golardi returned to port he decided to stick by the Evelina to protect her against damage. That evening a gang of thugs arrived and milled around, waving baseball bats and clubs; in a gesture of contempt one hood threw a garbage can into the Evelina. Police came, and the hoods left. On the next day, a Friday, police kept a watchful eye as Golardi stood guard over the Evelina, but on Saturday, while he was away, a pickup truck came by. A man jumped off and tossed a bucket of creosote, a tarry preservative, into the cockpit. Having done so, he jumped back on the truck, shouted, "Let's go, Joe!" and the truck departed. Damage to the Evelina was $3,200 and some creosote still clings to the bilge.

Fortunately, a witness at the boat basin noted the license number of the truck, and on August 19th police arrested Frederick Burd of Belford, N.J. on charges of malicious damage and threatening to take a life. Burd is now free on $2,500 bail awaiting a hearing. Meanwhile Editor Walczyk of the Jersey Angler's News has been given the word that he is due to get his skull cracked for his coverage of the draggers. In a recent editorial Walczyk angrily pointed out that some of the bandits are still operating, having altered their working schedules to avoid contact with state patrols now on the job.

"A local shorefront police officer was told by a dragger that business is better than ever," Walczyk wrote. "He explained that a few of the more timid members of the band have decided to lay low. Porgy shipments to the market had diminished and the market price shot up. This combination of diminished competition and increased profits was too much to resist. The draggers are now so happy with the conditions they are reporting that the events of the past two weeks have produced a bonanza for them.... Their contempt for the law and the public is outrageous. Sportsmen everywhere are calling for a complete and final end to their activities. Will that day ever come?"

There are similar reports of much larger draggers working at night off the South Shore of Long Island. They run with their lights out in clear defiance of Coast Guard regulations, and New York State Conservation Department patrols are in the area trying to catch them. Many fishermen, particularly those belonging to the League of Salt Water Sportsmen headed by militant Don Manns, would be surprised if the draggers were apprehended and punished. The Conservation Department in Albany is not exactly famous for protecting striped bass. Last May, for example. Conservation Commissioner Harold Wilm dismissed the Indian Point slaughter of striped bass by the Consolidated Edison Company (SI, April 26) as "in the vein of an act of God."

Moreover, to the league's disgust, the department has fought off legislation to have the striped bass declared a game fish in New York waters. It is legal in New York, but not in adjacent states, for haul seiners to net schools of striped bass when they appear off the tip of Long Island on their migratory treks. This is dandy business for the seiners, who sent 900,000 pounds of stripers to market last year, but it is irritating, to say the least, to the poor sap of a surf caster who is shoved off the beach by seiners after waiting hours, even days, for the fish to arrive. Since striped bass are a marketable fish in New York, they offer a commercial outlet not only to legal haul seiners but to illegal draggers as well. According to one New York official, who is concerned about dragging, the most dangerous period is coming up shortly. "From mid-September to mid-October is when the temptation is greatest," he says. "The striped bass are moving along the shore, and this is when the draggers try to move in to take a swipe at them."

Until New York and New Jersey either change or enforce their laws, or until the Federal Government moves in with a migratory game-fish bill similar to the migratory waterfowl act, fishing in the area promises to be chaotic for sportsmen and legitimate commercial fishermen, both of whom suffer from the acts of base draggers and poachers. In any event, fishing, which is supposedly the contemplative sport, could be more hectic this fall than ever before.