For over 300 years, New Jersey’s commercial fishermen have been bringing home some of the finest fish and shellfish caught anywhere in the world. The burgeoning seafood industry that grew up along the state’s coastline shaped how a large part of the landscape would come to look, as fishing villages later evolved into the familiar towns of the Jersey Shore, often with the seafaring life at their core.
Look around those towns, known more today for the tourists they reel in than the fish brought ashore, and you can still find the hard-working fishermen and aquaculturalists making their living from the bounty of the waters. Far from the “salty seadogs” portrayed on celluloid, today’s fishermen are apt to know as much about conservation and the life cycles of various fish as they do about hooks, lines and nets. They are keenly aware that over-fishing will bring problems for their business, so they do their best to ensure there will be an ample supply of a variety of species in the future.
Last year alone, over 100 different species of finfish and shellfish were harvested in the Garden State. Local product is shipped to some of the most discerning seafood markets in the world. New Jersey monkfish are on display at wholesale markets in Seoul, South Korea. New Jersey tuna is sliced in sushi bars in Tokyo. New Jersey squid is served in tapas restaurants in Madrid.
In 2003, New Jersey boats brought in over 170 million pounds of fish, valued at over $120 million paid to fishermen at the dock.
Clearly, the harvesting of seafood has played an important role in New Jersey’s history. But fishing and aquaculture are more than just a part of the state’s heritage. Six major fishing ports are located in this state – Atlantic City, Barnegat Light, Belford, Cape May, Point Pleasant and Port Norris – with a commercial fleet of more than 1,500 vessels employing nearly 3,000 fishermen. New Jersey also boasts 15 seafood processing plants and 81 wholesalers employing more than 2,200 workers.
Working the waters -- then and now
A visit to the Viking Village seaport in Barnegat Light shows just how much the work of those who bring in the bounty of the sea remains a part of everyday life.
The Village, a bustling operation on the northern tip of Long Beach Island, is currently home to 38 fishing boats, the most the business has ever seen. On any given day, vessels like the Virginia Lynn are preparing to head out to sea. The crews of these large fishing boats employ a number of techniques. Some are long-liners, who drag lines with hooks spaced far apart. Others are “dredges,” with nets on frames used for gathering shellfish.