An inside Look at the Life of a Conservation Officer.
Growing up in the city, I learned how to fish and hunt along the Delaware River up the street from our row home. Nothing too exotic, catfish, carp and eels were the most common catch of the day. Back then, the Delaware wasn’t as fish friendly as it has become today. We learned through trial and errors as most of our fathers were often too busy working at their long hour, blue collar jobs. No complaints mind you, that’s just the way it was. Things were different back then. I don’t think I had my first encounter with a fish and game official until much later in life, when I started hunting. Even then, if memory serves me, it was just casual happenstance, checking of licenses and catch. We always respected them of course, having been schooled by our elders as to the devastating results of not following the rules.
For the most part, I never really gave a second thought about the job they do or how difficult it must be at some times and how rewarding at others. I simply accepted it as a part of the pastime. When I got out of college, the economy was much like it is these days, tough to get a job. So I accepted a position as an Internal Revenue Agent and relocated to Pittsburgh. It’s a job that no one really thinks about or likes but definitely has a role to fill in society. In some respects, the conservation officer faces a similar dilemma more comparable to the IRS Agent. As part of the enforcement arm of government, they are all too often saddled with the job of administering laws made by other governing bodies and as such, are often the face that we, the end user associates with the laws we must adhere to in our pursuits.
According to the NJDEP website, the requirements for becoming a conservation officer position include possession of a Bachelor’s degree in one of the Biological Sciences or Natural Resources management or Environmental Studies or science. In addition, the degree must be supplemented by twenty-four (24) semester hour credits in any combination of the following areas: Fisheries Science, Wildlife Science, Ecology, Natural Resource Management or Biological Science. One (1) year of experience in law enforcement, environmental enforcement activities, wildlife science, fisheries science, or environmental science is also a requirement. By contrast, all needed to become an officer in the Department of Treasury was a Bachelor’s Degree with at least 24 credits in accounting. And it doesn’t end there. Once hired, each candidate must successfully complete a Police Training Commission certified basic police officers course. CO candidates must also complete a 12 week Bureau training course in fish and Wildlife regulations. They must also be state residents when appointed as a CO and are required to establish residency in a specific geographic location within 9 months.
During the course of my research for this piece, I had the opportunity to chat with officers from the top administrative positions to the front line conservation officer. With over 40 years fishing experience, some years spent as a tackle manufacturer’s rep and writing for several local fishing publications, I assumed I was well versed with the rules and regulations. Five minutes into a conversation with Captain Dominick Fresco of the Marine Enforcement Division, I discovered that I basically knew nothing. The most visible aspect of the Conservation officer’s job occurs in the summer months when most anglers take advantage of the fair weather in their pursuit of their quarry and most would assume that is the foundation of their duties. In fact, as the primary enforcement agency responsible for all the coastal fisheries in the state, the unit focuses a good deal of their attention on the commercial side of the house. Considering that NJ has the 6th largest commercial port (Cape May) in the country along with 5 other major ports and various intermediate ports, you would assume that there is a cast of hundreds assigned with the task of monitoring the catch. The truth of the matter is that the actual number is well south of twenty individuals actually patrolling the field. The latest estimates I could find put sales related to the marine industry (boating, fishing equipment etc.) anywhere form 450 million to upwards of 1.6 billion dollars in the state. Factor in employment taxes, sales taxes and special excise taxes and it’s easy to see that it is one hell of a revenue generator for the state. But comparatively speaking, the budget for the entire Marine Unit of the Fish and Wildlife Division is roughly around 1 million dollars. According to Captain Fresco, that amount is augmented by some matching federal funds for their work on highly Migratory Species. But even with that, it’s this writer’s opinion the budgeted amount is woefully low for a Division of State that is responsible for such an enormous segment of generated income. And just to ease your mind, I could find no incentive for the officers in the field to issue citations as a form of expanding their funding. Yes, fish are sold to one of three authorized merchants when they are seized from a commercial fisherman. But that is done as a hedge against the possibility that the seizure turns out to be unwarranted, in which case the commercial fisherman can be made whole with said funds for the fish seized.
When I was offered the chance to do a ride along with one of the officers as part of my research, I of course, leapt at the opportunity. After all, who wouldn’t want to be on the other side of the table for a change? Just like my experiences when I was an IRS agent about to perform an audit, I assumed that even the most conscientious angler must have concerns when approached by a law enforcement officer. I know I always have.
After a preliminary briefing with Captain Dominick Fresco, I was paired with Conservation Officer Brett Niklow for my tour as an observer. One thing that became very obvious from the beginning was that from the top down, those serving in Marine Unit do not consider this a 9-5 job. With so few people to cover the coastal area, these officers appreciate that it takes a 24-7 commitment to get the job done. It also became apparent to me that there were two sides of the house and each had a separate entrance that was to be approached from a different direction. On the recreational fishing side, it was more about educating the anglers. With so many twists and turns and yearly variations of the saltwater limits and seasons combined with the influx of casual anglers into our state during the summer vacation season, it’s a wonder even the professionals can keep track of the rules and regulations. Take for example the tautog season, or should I say seasons, of which there are five different deviations. Factor in size and creel limits which seem to change each and every year and it’s a small wonder that Valium isn’t a mandatory part of every tackle box. And that’s just for a single species. Multiply that by twenty or more and the spectrum gets infinitely more complex. At current staffing and budget levels, educating the public is not only the best path to take but possibly the only one that stands a chance of being successful.
On the commercial side of the house, the approach is much different. I have long known that virtually every fish that is landed in a commercial outlet in the state of New Jersey is accounted for in one way or another. By one agency or another. But numbers without some sort of verification are essentially meaningless. That’s where the F&W Marine Unit comes in. Obviously, given the overall size of the commercial population, every landing cannot be physically inspected. By employing a protocol similar to one used by the IRS, the F&W Marine unit focuses its attention on areas or handlers that have the highest probability for a change. And I say “seems to” because once again, Like the IRS, the specifics of how they determine which boats or processors they inspect is a closely guarded formula. Logically speaking, it makes sense to keep these standards close the vest. Publicizing them would obviously allow the bad guys the opportunity to adjust their tactics to avoid detection. In the twenty-plus years I spent in accounting and taxation, I had the opportunity to work in many different industries. None, short of the medical industry, is as heavily monitored and regulated as the commercial fishing industry. I know this seems to be a bone of contention with many recreational fishermen, but I stand by my observations.
Our tour of duty started from the docks at the Nakote Creek station on a hard bottom 18’ inflatable powered with a 200 HP Honda. Standard electronics package, no super -secret detection equipment or computerized stealth packages. The first stop of the day was an oyster man working his farm beds. Officer Nicklow, informed me that shellfish are one of their more critical areas of concern during their water patrols. Because of the possibility of contamination from a variety of way, especially for oysters, insuring that the shellfish are properly harvested is an important step in monitoring the industry. Once they hit the market, it is virtually impossible to verify. Oyster must be maintained in certain conditions which limit spoilage and can only dredge up until 11 am each day. For wild species of shellfish, closed areas are definitely the area of primary concern.
The recreational anglers we inspected during his shift were for the most part respectful of the position but obviously a little nervous, I would assume no different than a motorist pulled over on the streets. The difference in Officer Nicklow’s inspections was there were no glaring violations that beckoned the stop. All were completely random. Just when I thought I had figured out his rationale for a stop, he surprised me by going the other way. Of the 8 to 10 rec’s we approached, half had fish in their lockers and of that several had flounder that were a little below the minimum standard of 17.5 inches. That surprised me a little. In each case, it was quite obvious that the anglers had made honest mistakes. In one instance, I suspected poor vision played a role in another, a faulty measuring tape. Each was issued a written warning and the fish were returned to the water. There was no animosity on the part of CO Nicklow, contrary to that; he went out of his way to explain the rules worked and how to avoid similar issues in the future. I got the distinct impression that the education would pay dividends in the future. Other areas of concern during our ride were illegal baits, of which fluke belly seems a primary concern. Officer Nicklow told me that it is a common problem, few have the required rack with them if they are using belly and further, most admit that they knew were outside the regulations. Sadly for the anglers we encountered, none were even close to having limit totals even close to the thresholds.
As the saying goes, “it’s a tough job but someone has to do it”. And make no mistake about it, Conservation Officers are every bit the law enforcement officers as any other in the field. One of their toughest duties is patrol or undercover work in some of the tougher urban environments. Unfortunately, some highly productive fishing areas are also adjacent to some high crime areas. I know this because I have fished them. Some I won’t return to in full sunlight, let alone in the middle of the night when many violators seem to ply their trade. And CO’s often work hand in hand with other law enforcement agencies, local, state and federal. But another thing I have learned is that being a Marine Conservation Officer is definitely a labor of love. I doubt that Officer Nicklow has earned more than one percent of his lifetime earnings farther than ten feet away from the saltwater. Prior to his appointment to the service, he spent time charter fishing, clamming and crabbing among other things. Based on my observation, his background is the norm rather than the exception for those serving with him.
All too often, people have a tendency to assign blame to the wrong people when they perceive an inconvenience in their routines. This article barely touches on the complexities that a CO must deal with on a daily basis. If you take anything away it, I hope it is the fact that the guys and gals out there protecting the environment for all of us sportsman, have little or no say about the laws they are sworn to enforce. Nor do they judge you. Those decisions are often the responsibility of those in higher positions of authority. And those legislators and commission members rarely have to deal with the ire of the John Q Public, the way Conservation Officers do on an almost daily basis. The Conservation Officers job is to protect and serve and might I add, educate. And in my opinion, they do one hell of a job against almost insurmountable odds. So next time you are boarded for a routine inspection, or stopped on the jetty for a routine check, take a minute to thank them for their service. Remember, they are working for you, not against you. See you on the incoming.
Originally published in the October edition of On the Water Magazine.