Lawrence Schmidt, Executive Director of the Tuckerton Seaport Village and Museum, recalled how New Jersey’s coastal towns revolved around the industry.
“Tuckerton’s heyday was really in the mid-19th Century or just a little earlier; it was a pretty bustling little place,” Schmidt said. “A lot of these little towns thrived and even owed their existence to commercial fishing, and to some degree the sport fishing industry.
“But with the collapse of the shellfish industry, a lot of these towns lost the major thrust of their economies. As those things died out, the people living in those towns pursued other opportunities.”
Most of the shore towns these days see themselves as “maritime resorts” more so than fishing and aquaculture towns, Schmidt said. New developments have brought in residents with little or no ties to the industry, and a large number of the towns have populations that dramatically dip after Labor Day.
Yet it is that very shift toward tourism that may offer one of the best opportunities for the seafood industry, Schmidt said.
“One of the things people are looking for these days from tourism is a destination that is something unique, experiential and authentic,” he said.
Towns where commercial fishing still thrives would do well to look to Gloucester, Massachusetts, on Boston’s north shore.
“There’s still a very active commercial fishing industry there,” Schmidt said, “But tourists love to come and watch the fleets come in. They’re able to have fresh seafood. They go to the docks and converse with the watermen and the baymen. They talk to them about what it takes to continue that kind of operation in 21st Century realities.
“The small towns that dot the Jersey shore have an opportunity to capitalize like that. There’s something very homey and approachable about it, something very picturesque about a maritime community like Tuckerton or Port Norris or Cape May with its Victorian architecture. Yet on the northern end of Cape May, you’ve still got a number of commercial and charter operations.”
Some of the elements already exist for such a co-mingling of the seafood and tourism industries, said Gregory DiDomenico, Executive Director of the Garden State Seafood Association.
“You’ve got places like the Lobster House in Cape May, which is, I think, one of the top- ten grossing restaurants in the country,” DiDomenico said. “And you’ve got boats coming in there all the time. It’s an area where people could see the industry at work. Viking Village also does a good job with their restaurant. Their community knows they’re there.”