Despite its small size, New Jersey is a fishing powerhouse. Ranked 46th in terms of total land mass, the state, with its 127 miles of Atlantic Ocean coast, comes in 13th for longest coastline, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And that doesn’t include Jersey’s 83 miles of bay coast. Add all the inlets and tidal areas, and the state boasts close to 1,800 miles of waterfront, of which full advantage is taken by the state’s abundant fishing community.
The waters off New Jersey produce more than 100 varieties of finfish and shellfish, most of which are brought ashore at one of the state’s six major ports, located in Cape May/Wildwood, Atlantic City, Point Pleasant, Belford, Barnegat Light and Port Norris. In terms of dollar value landed, Cape May is the fifth largest port in the country. NOAA values the state’s fishing industry at $2.3 billion, generating more than 40,000 jobs, including processors, distributors, retail sales and some 2,000 commercial fishermen. The state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife estimates an additional half million recreational anglers fish Jersey waters each year. Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, says New Jersey is uniquely situated as a mecca for migrating fish.
“We get a little of the northern species and a little of the southern species,” he says. “They all pass by our back door.”
According to preliminary data provided by NOAA, New Jersey fishermen in 2011 landed approximately 133 million pounds of seafood. This was down from total landings in 2010 of 162 million pounds, although the value was up from $177.9 million to $195.2 million. Peter Clarke, a biologist with the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, attributes the difference to ever-changing government mandates.
“You are looking at a very highly managed and regulated industry these days,” Clarke says. “Gone are the days when fishermen can possess whatever gear they want and go out and harvest whatever fish they want.” Clarke’s division oversees management plans for 22 species of fish, controlling licensing, catch quotas and practices within the industry.
New Jersey waters have consistently yielded among the country’s top annual catches for several species. In 2011, 22.2 million pounds of meat from surf clams and ocean quahogs, valued at $13.7 million, were dredged from the ocean floor off New Jersey, making the state once again the country’s top clam producer. The state is the second largest provider of sea scallops and squid, and third highest provider of summer flounder, or fluke.
At Cape May Foods in Millville, Daniel and Michael LaVecchio run the country’s largest hand-shucked clam operation. The business started in 1923 but got its big break in the 1960s, when Howard Johnson’s needed a source of clam strips for the restaurant chain’s popular all-you-can-eat fried-clam dinners. Today, Cape May Foods operates a dozen fishing vessels and employs 200 people, annually producing about 18 million pounds of clam meat used for fried clams, canned clams, juices, sauces and chowder. While other clam operations have moved to mechanical processing, Dan LaVecchio says his company is committed to hand shucking.
“It costs more to do, but you get a better quality product,” says the third-generation owner, whose products go by the name LaMonica Foods, after his grandfather. “A mechanically shucked clam is steamed open. It’s very tough, not tender.”
New Jersey’s big cash cow is sea scallops. (Click here to read story). Second only to Massachusetts, New Jersey fishermen increased their 2010 haul of 14.2 million pounds of sea scallops to 14.6 million pounds in 2011, with a value of $142.4 million, more than 10 times that of the clams. Scallops are such a valuable commodity for New Jersey that agriculture secretary Doug Fisher is looking to brand them along the same lines as Alaskan king crab or Maine lobster.
“Our scallops are premier. They’re big, they’re beautiful and they’re fresh,” says Fisher, who encourages consumers to ask for Jersey-caught fish at their local restaurants and seafood markets.
On the recreational side, fishermen take their boats on the water or fish from shore, jetties and piers throughout the state, catching striped bass, summer flounder, tuna, monkfish and tilefish. Or they sign on for a day trip with one of the large charter boats, also known as party boats, which embark from most of the state’s ports. Out of Point Pleasant, Bob Bogan Jr. operates the Gambler, a 90-foot party boat that is licensed to hold 149 people, but typically takes 20 to 70 people on its half-day summer fishing runs.
“You’ve got three different kinds of people,” says Bogan, a third-generation charter operator. “The kind that know how to fish, the kind that don’t know how to fish and the kind that think they know how to fish.” Still, he says he tries to make sure everyone catches something so they’ll want to come fishing again.
Click on the links below to read more from our Seafood Lovers’ Guide:
Delights From The Deep
Do you think the wonders of the Shore end at bodysurfing distance from the beach? Of course not. Another world entirely begins there—the cornucopian world of Jersey seafood. Here is a foretaste of the riches that Jersey fishermen, plying coastal waters, bring to our docks on a daily basis.
Our Favorite NJ Seafood Restaurants
Seafood is a given on virtually every restaurant menu, but some places pride themselves on providing a broad range of the very freshest catch. Here are some of our favorites, with a few words on what to expect. If none of these float your boat, there’s always sushi.
Scallop fishermen, working like dogs, haul in Jersey’s most valuable seafood crop. A day on the job with the crew of the scallop boat Lucky Thirteen.
The Whale’s Tale
You have to get there pretty early to beat Fair Lawn’s Peter Panteleakis (a.k.a. Mr. Whale) to the best seafood at the Fulton Fish Market.