Jersey’s Commercial Fishing Industry Struggles to Stay Afloat

In the wake of the pandemic, the industry—the fifth largest in the country—has been in rough waters. Will July and August bring relief?

commercial fishing
“When restaurants are closed,” says Jeff Reichle, owner of Lund’s Fisheries in Cape May, “the whole supply chain behind that suffers.” Photo by Jauhien Sasnou

Sam Martin has never had to deal with a housing crisis. Now, thanks to the pandemic, he’s got a big one. Ordinarily, when the oysters he raises along the Delaware Bay shoreline outgrow their bags and cages, he ships them to market and starts over again. But with “virtually all our sales coming from restaurants,” and the restaurant industry on hold, Martin’s oysters have nowhere to go.

“It’s a big bottleneck,” he says.

Atlantic Cape Fisheries, of which Martin is chief operating officer, is a large commercial fishery as well as New Jersey’s largest producer of farmed oysters. Based in Port Norris, about 20 miles northwest of Cape May, its oyster operation has “doubled in size each of the last three years,” Martin says. “Last year we sold 2.5 million oysters, and we planned to sell 5 million this year, but sales so far are down about 80 percent compared to last year.”

Lodged in the water in their bags and cages, the oysters continue to grow. But once they exceed the ideal raw-bar size of about 3 1/2 inches, they lose as much as 60 percent of their value and wind up in the commodity breading-and-frying market. This month, the company will make a difficult decision. To free up bags and racks for future crops, it may have to dump its unsold, now-oversize oysters into the bay.

Three counties away, the Barnegat Oyster Collective is facing similar straits on the Atlantic coastline. Before the pandemic, “tens of thousands of people were eating our oysters in restaurants,” says CEO Scott Lennox. But since the collective was selling to distributors, “we didn’t know who they were. So we had to completely pivot and turn ourselves into an e-commerce company. We created the party pack. You get two dozen chilled oysters in a foam box with gel packs, a free oyster knife with instructions, and free shipping. And we do a Saturday Instagram shucking demo.”

The bottleneck that Martin spoke of has throttled not only oystering, but New Jersey’s entire commercial fishing industry, representing $6.2 billion in sales in 2016 and 52,000 jobs, fifth in the United States. Recreational party-boat fishing, a $1.4 billion industry that year, has likewise been becalmed. While seafood sales are up at supermarkets and specialty shops like Metropolitan Seafood in Lebanon, that uptick cannot compensate for the lack of restaurant business.

“When I tell my boats to go fishing, I tell them, ‘Don’t bring in a lot,’” says David Tauro, general manager of the docks at the Belford Seafood Co-Op on Sandy Hook Bay. With restaurants closed or functioning at subsistence levels for much of the spring, “it doesn’t take much to flood the market, because there’s no place for the fish to go,” he says.

“This time of year, we catch a lot of whiting and ling [also known as red hake]. Ling is a great-eating fish. Early spring, we were getting $1.10 a pound for ling, then it went to 85 cents. In early May, it went to 25 cents, then to 10 cents. That’s horrible. At those rates, the fishermen can’t even pay for the boxes they put the fish in.”

[RELATED: Jersey Shore Restaurants Offering Takeout and Delivery This Summer]

The co-op runs a small dockside retail shop that does a brisk business, but it is in no way a lifeline. “Last year, I had seven or eight boats working around the clock,” Tauro says. “Now I have two or three. Even restaurants doing takeout doesn’t help much. Maybe people order a steak. Nobody orders fish to go.”

Belford, founded in 1953, is the smallest of New Jersey’s six commercial fisheries, but its pain is shared by the larger ones, such as Viking Village in Barnegat Light and Lund’s Fisheries in the state’s largest commercial fishing port, Cape May.

“We’ve been here since 1954,” says owner Jeff Reichle. “Six years ago, we decided to add value to what we’re producing by creating new products.” Under brand names such as Seafood Market and Sea Legend, the fishery sells retail-size packs of frozen scallops or mixed seafood in sauces to big-box stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club. These are processed at its facility in nearby Bridgeton.

“That business is probably twice what it was last year,” Reichle says. The proceeds from commercial fishing, on the other hand, “are 90 percent less than it was last year.” Lund’s operates on both coasts, employing about 200 people in New Jersey. Squid is one of its major catches, much of it sold to restaurants or exported frozen to southern Europe. But now, Reichle says, “we’ve got inventory, but no place to sell it.”

One small triumph: “We haven’t laid off one person. Some are working from home. These people,” he adds, “have been with us a long time.”

In mid-May, Long Branch resident and Democratic U.S. congressman Frank Pallone Jr. announced that New Jersey will receive $11 million in federal funding from the CARES Act to aid its commercial and charter fisheries, aquaculture and seafood processors.

“I’ve heard that before,” says Richard Isaksen, president of the Belford Co-Op. “We had about a million in losses from Sandy, and we got about $50,000. Two of [Pallone’s] staffers called me and said he’s going to make sure we get some of that. I’ll believe it when I see it. If fish prices don’t go up and the restaurants don’t reopen, we’re not going to be able to stay in business.”

But, he adds, if restaurants do reopen widely “and we get July and August, we might be alright.” Chris Sprague of Viking Village goes a bit further. “That,” he says, “could save it.”

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