Their heyday long past, Jersey’s tiny Delaware Bay fishing villages try to reel in an uncertain future.
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It happens almost imperceptibly, but at a certain point in the journey the world disappears.
The traffic fades. Mules graze beside farmhouses. Turn-of-the-century churches look creaky with age. Men stack firewood on front porches, and women hang laundry in the sun.
County Highway 553 winds through the deepest parts of South Jersey all the way to Delaware Bay. Finally, even the farmhouses disappear. Turning toward the water on Fortescue Road, the trees give way to tall reeds and yawning marshes. The clicking tempo of bullfrogs fills the air. Hawks circle overhead. A few signs begin to appear—battered, sun-bleached posters for marinas, tackle shops, and restaurants, many of them long since closed and forgotten.
Around one last lazy bend, a small fishing village appears against the backdrop of an impressive bay and its guarding marshes. Boats rock in the water. Telephone poles are the tallest objects on the horizon.
This is Fortescue, an impossibly small dot of civilization on the Delaware Bay, with a meandering tributary to its north and flaxen marshland to its south and east. It is a humble grid of maritime homes and a single hotel connected by just five short streets. At less than two square miles and a population in the hundreds, it would be easy to miss. But no one ends up in Fortescue by accident. If you’re here, you meant to come.
The same goes for the rest of this region of Cumberland County known as the Bayshore. Just a few miles down the coast is Port Norris, an equally intimate enclave that, in the early twentieth century, boasted the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any spot in the country, the result of a booming commercial oyster industry unrivaled in its time.
Today, the streets of Port Norris are quiet. Stacks of crab traps and piles of clam and oyster shells flank the roads that lead to its marinas. Schoolchildren stroll home in the early afternoon. An antique shop stands guard across the street from an old gated cemetery. And while the millionaires are long gone, their once-grand Victorian mansions stand as vestiges of their time here.
Up the coast, more settlements cling to the bay, with names like Gandy’s Beach, Money Island, and Sea Breeze. Some have fewer than twenty homes splayed along the shore. Boat slips jut out into the water, and men fish in the surf, sitting on bait buckets and eating sandwiches while staring into the distance.
The Bayshore is an unblemished, almost unknown stretch of waterfront as rich in history and character as any in the Northeast. But it is also a land in flux, and, some say, a land in danger. The past decade has not been kind, as staple industries like recreational fishing and commercial oystering have struggled to survive under the weight of increased regulations and a shifting economy. Shops have closed, captains have sold their boats, and many have started to wonder: Who will remain and what will become of this place?
Betty Higbee pours a glass of water and takes a seat next to her husband, Clarence “Bunky” Higbee, at their kitchen table. The couple’s substantial brick home is the first structure you see when you emerge from the marshes on the drive into Fortescue. It’s a fitting welcome, considering the Higbees’ reputation around these parts. Few families are as widely known up and down the Bayshore.
“I like to call this the House that Weakfish Built,” says Betty, gazing out of the kitchen’s large bay window at her family’s namesake marina across the street. It’s a cool, cloudless morning in early April, and the boat captains are busy washing and repairing their vessels in preparation for the summer season.
Just as farming and mining helped build other parts of the state, the fishing industry brought life to the Bayshore. Watermen from the Philadelphia area started sailing their boats down the Delaware in the latter half of the nineteenth century to catch late-spring runs of shad and stripers as the schools swam up the bay and into the Delaware River toward Trenton. These Bayshore pioneers towed small houseboats behind their fishing vessels to serve as their homes throughout the summer.
Over the years, the captains started sticking around. They spent winters trapping animals for fur, gathering oysters, and repairing their craft. And when summer returned, so too came recreational fishermen in search of boats to charter. By the turn of the century, there was no reason to leave, so the watermen and their families built permanent homes. There were even winter jobs to be had at nearby glass factories in Millville. The Bayshore began to grow.
This history is in Bunky Higbee’s blood. At 72, he is old-time Fortescue; a third-generation captain with a weathered voice and an uncomplicated respect for hard work. “I never lived nowhere else besides Fortescue,” he says, peering out the window alongside his wife of 50 years. “It’s the best place in the world to grow up. There’s hunting, fishing, boating. Everything you could want as a kid.”
Bunky suffered a debilitating stroke ten years ago and now leaves the seamanship to his three grown sons. But even confined to his wheelchair he is an imposing figure, a testament to the rugged roots of this place he calls home.
Like almost everyone else around here, the Higbees built their lives around recreational fishing. Every summer for more than half a century, they catered to the visitors who came to Fortescue in droves, often increasing the town’s population from less than 400 in the off-season to about 3,000 from May through August. They came—often just for the day—for the flounder, the crabs, and oh yes, the weakfish.
Some of the visitors sought charter boats and some towed their own. “We would have a hundred boats lined up on the road into town,” says Betty. “We couldn’t go to bed at night because they were still coming in waiting to get into the water. It was wonderful for the whole town. Another marina down the road had the same number of boats. Every business thrived. You couldn’t move down here, it was so busy.”
Things began to change after 1976, when, in response to perceived overfishing, federal regulations for the first time limited the number of fish that could be caught on a given expedition. Then came size limits and more stringent enforcement throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s. And then something even more startling happened: The weakfish started to disappear. Perhaps they had been overfished. Perhaps the natural cycle of their migration was changing. Perhaps it was a little bit of both. Theories abound, but one thing is clear: The fishing is not what it used to be.
This is not to suggest the water is barren. Commercial oystering in Port Norris, while nowhere close to the thriving industry it was early in the twentieth century, is picking up again. Figures from the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Task Force, which studies and seeks to replenish the local oyster population, indicate significant growth in oyster harvesting since 2005. And when it comes to fish, locals say the bay is boiling with striped bass. But several factors—including the recent shortening of the summer flounder season by three weeks and strict 28-inch striper regulations—have made the past five years particularly hard.
For those dependent on recreational fishing, last summer was the worst yet. With gas prices at nearly $4 a gallon and the perpetually rising cost of bait, boat insurance, and maintenance, the financial burden became too great for many. Captains began selling their boats. Marina owners began shutting their doors for good. The last private boat rental outfit in Fortescue closed. And restaurants, gift shops, and roadside markets, all of which had flourished with the summer influx, began to fall prey to the troubled times.
“It don’t affect just us,” says Bunky. “No one has customers if we don’t have customers.”
The Bayshore towns have come to a crossroad. The older generation laments the regulations and longs for the glory days. Meanwhile, a younger generation of grown Bayshore children and new settlers seek to invent a lifestyle based on eco-tourism, sightseeing, and relaxation. Boating still plays a vital role, as much of the coastline here is rocky or marshy and not conducive to swimming and sunbathing.
“Some people are trying to make a resort out of this place, but that bothers us,” says Betty. “This is nothing more than a little fishing village, and a damn good one. But it’s faltering bad. Visitors today just want to walk around the town with a mixed drink in their hand or sit on their decks and play loud music. It’s a different lifestyle. They don’t want to get their hands dirty. They want to sit on the docks and just look at the boats and have an ice cream cone and not go fishing. And it’s killing us.”
She turns her attention once again to the view outside her kitchen window. “It’s all disappearing.”
“Stop. Listen. Do you hear that? Nothing. There is no noise. It’s silent as can be.” Lyn Waterman stands at the edge of the Oranokin Creek, blocking the setting sun from her eyes with an outstretched hand. “When you’re out here it’s the coolest thing ever. But it’s the unsung song. It’s the tree falling in the forest that no one is around to hear.”
Three years ago Lyn and her husband, Paul, moved up here from Cape May Court House and purchased Beaver Dam Boat Rentals in Newport. It’s a small, storied recreational crabbing outfit off an otherwise empty stretch of County Highway 533 between Port Norris and Fortescue. Lyn, 49, and Paul, 58, know all about the local troubles, but they say they have a new vision of the future.
“Are we concerned about the upcoming summer? Of course we are. Name a small business that’s not worried. But everybody’s looking for something a little different, and we’re taking a different direction,” says Lyn.
It could be said that Beaver Dam is the new business model for the Bayshore maritime industry. Instead of affixing motors to their 30 crabbing boats, the Watermans tow these rowboats into the creek’s salt marshes, saving money on fuel while also remaining environmentally conscientious. And instead of making the expedition solely about catching as many crabs as possible, the Watermans emphasize bird watching, sightseeing, canoeing, kayaking, and environmental education. It’s all very 21st century. And so far, the Watermans say, the venture has been profitable.
Another new entrepreneur is Joe Acosta, who bought a run-down marina in Money Island in December and began the process of making it new again. The marina, named Rusty Joe’s, caters to boat owners—some of whom take to the water just for the fun of it, as opposed to hard-core fishermen. By late April, 40 of his 90 slips already were reserved for the summer, inspiring wonderment from all who would listen. “This is an untapped area and I see a lot of new blood coming in,” says Acosta, 44, who still lives in Vineland where he is a paint contractor. “The old and new is not meshing yet, and it’s a little frustrating, but I think we can work it out.”
Paul Waterman, who serves on the governor’s advisory council for aquaculture, understands the conflict. “I think the Delaware Bay is at a turning point,” he says. “There is a lot of old school here, and that’s one of the beauties of the place. Coming down here is like going back in time…but you’ve got an old guard down here that’s having a hard time with the change.”
Meghan Wren also knows the story. She is director of the Bayshore Discovery Project in Port Norris, an organization she founded for environmental awareness, Bayshore education, and historic preservation.
Throughout the 1990s, Wren and her organization worked to restore the A.J. Meerwald, a grand oyster schooner launched in 1928 when South Jersey’s oyster industry was in full millionaire swing. Now restored and docked in Bivalve, the Meerwald, which was designated New Jersey’s official tall ship in 1998, serves as a tourist destination and maritime-education resource.
“In a quiet way, the percentages of people coming down here for birding and other non-consumptive ways to appreciate the bay have been going up,” says Wren, who makes her home on Money Island and has spent much of her life in the Bayshore area. “Is there a tension there? I don’t know.”
What she does know is that the future of the Bayshore must incorporate the needs of folks who built their lives around the water and its bounty. “Down in the Chesapeake [Bay] there has been a long-held respect for the watermen. Up here, I think the watermen have to fight for their respect and their place in the community,” she says. “That seems unfair to me, and it’s a part of what I hope we’re accomplishing here. I don’t think many watermen would say, ‘Oh yeah, the Bayshore Discovery Project. They’re our friends.’ But that’s how I see it.”
Today is the first day since the end of winter in which Jim Higbee has spent serious time tending to the Miss Fortescue, his head boat of 21 years. He’s installing new radio equipment, organizing his gear, and making myriad preparations for the approaching season. At 50, Jim is the oldest of the three Higbee sons, and he remembers well the legions of recreational fishermen that came to the bay when this area was still known as the weakfish capital of the world.
“Growing up you never thought about college. You wanted to go fishing,” he says with the same thick, waterman drawl of his father. “I used to skip school to go fishing. Heck, I could make some money and have fun, so why not?”
More than 35 party boats sailed out of Fortescue on an almost daily basis back then. Today less than fifteen remain, and it’s not unusual to see most of them rocking in the waters of the marina, waiting for visitors who may never come.
Jim knows he is not immune to any of this. Over the last few summers the Miss Fortescue has been running at an operating loss for the first time in its history. “I was 22 when I started doing this, and I was one of the youngest guys out here. Now I’m one of the old-timers I guess,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve seen a lot a coming and going. It’s completely different now. You were a hero every day you went out. The fish were plentiful and people loved it. To me this used to be fun. It wasn’t like a job. Now sometimes I don’t always feel like getting up in the mornings and going out. I mean, I’ll be all right. I can always find work in the wintertime. But it should be about doing what you love, not what you have to do.”
But Jim is not giving in. He is decidedly less pessimistic than his mother and father, even if he is resigned to the difficulties he faces these days. So the weakfish aren’t biting? Well, that just means it’s time to start catching something else. Move forward. Take it in stride. Besides, he says, there’s still nothing better than being out on the water.
“I think I may end up being the last one standing,” he says. “But we have to adapt. That’s what happened to the dinosaurs, right? They didn’t adapt. Well, I’m not going to end up like the dinosaurs.”
Jim gazes down the length of the marina that bears his family’s name. The House that Weakfish Built stands tall in the distance, and all around him, watermen make their silent preparations for another uncertain summer down here where the world disappears.
Click here to view a slideshow of the Delaware Bayshore.
Click here to read "A Stay At The Bay," a guide about where to go and what to do on the Delaware Shoreline.
Nick DiUlio reported on canoeing and kayaking in the Pinelands for the March issue of New Jersey Monthly.
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