Harvesting the sea – Jersey’s Best


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by Nancy Parello | For Jersey's Best
Sat., Jul. 3, 2021

Posted on July 3, 2021 by Hunter Hulbert - Community

You’re at your favorite seafood restaurant, enjoying a flaky flounder or savory scallops, sipping a crisp sauvignon blanc, and you comment to your dining partner about the mouthwatering freshness of the fish. 
Do you ever stop to wonder how it got on your plate?  
If you did, you would discover a multibillion-dollar commercial fishing industry that is among the top in the nation, comprised of everything from the intrepid fishermen who troll the cold, deep waters of the Atlantic to the processing plants that package and ship the fish across New Jersey, the nation and the world. 
Many seafarers cast off each day, working grueling hours and then returning to the docks to unload their catch. Photo by Britton Spark
There are scientists who work to keep the fish supply healthy, establishing a Byzantine-like layer of rules governing how much fish can be caught each year. Dock hands, truckers, mates, shipbuilders and others all play a role in harvesting the sea to keep our local seafood stores and restaurants stocked with fresh fish caught in Mid-Atlantic waters and beyond.  
“You know where your fish is coming from,’’ said Austin Schwerzel, receiving manager at Viking Village Inc. in Barnegat Light, which processes about 5 million pounds of seafood a year. “It’s fresh right off the boat. We provide mostly sushi-grade fish. We have very high standards that our fishermen do a great job of living up to.’’ 
These seafarers, fishing aboard trawlers, scallop and sea clam dredgers, pot boats, purse seiners and other vessels, hauled in 175 million pounds of seafood in 2019 — the 8th largest catch nationally, according to NOAA Fisheries, a federal agency responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources and their habitat. 
Photo courtesy of Lund’s Fisheries
Working out of six major fishing ports — Atlantic City, Barnegat Light, Belford, Cape May, Point Pleasant and Port Norris — New Jersey fishermen rank No. 1 in the nation when it comes to landing clams, scallops, squid and Atlantic mackerel. Tuna, swordfish, black sea bass, monkfish and summer flounder also are culled from our waters.  
“New Jersey has one of the biggest commercial fisheries on the Atlantic coast,’’ said Jeff Brust, chief of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Bureau of Marine Fisheries. “It supports thousands of jobs.’’ 
Fishermen are the heart and soul of this industry, risking both life and livelihood to land the fish that feed their families — and millions of Americans. 
“Commercial fishermen are some of the hardest working people,’’ said Wayne Reichle, president, Lund’s Fisheries in Cape May, the state’s largest fishery. “They are paid on what they harvest. If they go out to sea and don’t catch anything, they don’t make anything. They take a lot of risk both financially and personally.’’ 
Many operate their own boats, staying hundreds of miles out at sea for days at a time. Other seafarers cast off each day, working grueling hours and then returning to the docks to unload their catch.   
New Jersey fishermen rank No. 1 in the nation when it comes to landing clams, scallops, squid and Atlantic mackerel. Photo courtesy of Lund’s Fisheries
Fishermen typically partner with processing operations, like Lund’s, which buys the whole fish at the dock and sells it to fish markets in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other wholesalers. Some fish is frozen and shipped to other parts of the country and the world. Lund’s alone sells between 60 and 70 million pounds of seafood each year across New Jersey and abroad, Reichle said. Some docks, like Barnegat Light, Belford and Point Pleasant, also sport retail shops selling directly to customers. 
“It’s an expansive network of customers and markets,’’ Schwerzel said.  
Economically, the seafood harvest alone brings more than $1 billion into New Jersey, but the fiscal benefits extend far beyond the catch, generating income for shipbuilders, maintenance and repair workers, and the equipment, fuel and supplies industries. 
For the fishermen, though, earning enough to support themselves and their family is far from guaranteed. Boats are expensive. Fuel, supplies and staff cost a lot of money, with payoffs varying, depending on the catch, the weather and the market.  
In 2019, about 175 million pounds of seafood were hauled in — the 8th largest catch nationally. Photo by Dave Tauro, Belford Seafood Co-Op
While technology helps today’s fishermen, other factors affect their catch and what that fish fetches back at the dock. And, unlike farmers, fishermen receive no federal subsidies to stay afloat during stormy times. 
“In the winter, our guys go anywhere from 75 to 150 miles offshore,’’ said Dave Tauro, manager of Belford Seafood Co-Op in Highlands. “It takes them sometimes 18 hours. Imagine what the fuel cost is. They spend three grand before they leave the dock.’’ 
Strict fishing quotas also impose hardships on fishermen. An array of different agencies — state, regional and federal — set rules for how much fish an operator can catch. These rules vary from year to year and are different for each species of fish. While fishermen clearly understand the need to sustain a healthy supply of fish, some lament that the regulations go too far and are disconnected from what is happening in the ocean at any given time.  
“They tell us when we can go and when we can’t go, how much we can catch,’’ Tauro said. “We have a bunch of scientists telling us how to fish. They don’t come on the boat with us. They don’t know where the striped bass, where the fluke are.’’ 
The DEP’s Brust, who helps to set these rules, agreed there are data lags and that sustainability efforts could benefit from more input from fishermen. 
“The fish populations aren’t changing that quickly, but it’s frustrating that we’re using last year’s data to set next year’s regulations,’’ he said. “There has been a push to get the fishermen more involved with the management process. They have very good information. They are on the water 200 days a year. They’ve living it.’’ 
Caissons are large watertight chambers that serve as popular structures for artificial reefs, which help fishing populations thrive. Photo courtesy of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
While Reichle agreed that some areas are overregulated, he has witnessed the benefits of efforts to sustain the fisheries. 
“I’ve seen the evolution from when we were overfishing to a time when the fishing industry endured massive amounts of restrictions,’’ Reichle said. “That helped us to get where we are today. We finally have sustainable fisheries within our oceans.’’ 
Creating artificial reefs is another tool in the sustainability arsenal that benefits fishermen and the environment. 
“Reefs give the fish food and shelter,’’ explained John Lewis, president of the Beach Haven Charter Fishing Associates, which is raising funds to create a reef off Long Beach Island. “It builds a habitat. The better the habitat, the more they multiply.’’ 
The DEP manages 17 artificial reefs, deploying materials to expand the reefs on an ongoing basis. But it falls to people like Lewis to raise funds to buy the material — old ships and barges, concrete and steel demolition debris and dredge rock — used to create reefs. 
“Private donations drive our program,’’ said Peter Clarke, DEP’s Artificial Reef Program coordinator. “Without those donations, we wouldn’t have the type of program we have, which is one of the most successful in the country.’’ 
Family members can now inter the cremated remains of a loved one in ‘reef balls,’’ which are 4- to 5-foot concrete structures that are carefully placed into New Jersey’s reef system. Photo courtesy of Destination Destiny Memorials
At the Ocean City Reef, which measures 0.8 square miles, family members can now inter the cremated remains of a loved one in “reef balls,’’ 4- to 5-foot concrete structures that are carefully placed into the reef system. 
“A reef ball can help foster life,’’ said Edward Bixby, owner of Destination Destiny Memorials. “You’re creating a living memorial for your loved ones and helping heal the Earth.’’  
Despite all the challenges commercial fishermen face, many involved in the industry plan to stay the course, anchored in a life that is woven into who they are. 
“It’s a way of life,’’ said Tauro, who, for years, worked on a commercial fishing boat. “I know seafood. I know how to catch them. I know how to sell them. I don’t know anything else.’’ 
Nancy Parello writes frequently for NJ Advance Media/Jersey’s Best. A former statehouse reporter, she previously worked for the Associated Press and The Record.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.

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