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Commercial Fishing Vessels

Commercial Fishing Vessels

(c) Rich Galiano
A small commercial fishing vessel of unknown type, although the bushels
on deck would imply that she was after some kind of shellfish.

There are three basic types of commercial fishing vessels found in the Mid-Atlantic region:  trawlers, seiners/gill-netters, and long-liners. A trawler or "dragger" operates by towing its fishing gear across the bottom. Weighted nets take bottom fishes, while cage-like steel dredges take clams and scallops. A seiner uses a floating net to encircle schools of surface-swimming fishes such as herring and tuna. A long-liner sets out miles of buoyed line with baited hooks to catch sharks, tuna,  and swordfish. One could also add lobster boats and charter fishing or "head" boats to this list. And of course, dive boats.

One thing that all commercial fishing vessels have in common is that they have gotten too big and too good at what they do. Almost any species that is targeted can be overexploited in just a few seasons, and this has happened repeatedly over the years. When the fishermen exhaust one fishery, such as Cod, they simply switch to another, decimating one species after another. Only recently have government regulations, quotas, and oversight begun to stem this destruction. Estimates are that as much as 90% of the large fishes in all the world's oceans have been fished out.

bycatchAnother major problem with most types of commercial fishing is bycatch. Bycatch is the term for everything else that is caught that was not targeted. Bycatch can be anything from fish to dolphins to turtles - most commercial fishing methods are as indiscriminate as they are efficient. Some bycatches are desirable, but most are simply discarded as trash, resulting in the destruction of many species which are not even economically important. Fisheries are regulated to minimize bycatch, but since it is inevitable, a certain amount of bycatch is expected and allowed for.


Fishermen face much the same set of problems as farmers. With no control over market price, all they can do is catch and sell as much as they can. So they get bigger boats, and bigger debts, and then they have to catch even more. Ultimately there is nothing left, and they go broke and their kids go hungry. Of course, the biggest losers in this game with no winners are the fish themselves, who end up dead, which is worse than broke. One way out of this vicious spiral is for the government to buy up the boats, licenses, and quotas of the fishermen, effectively getting them out of the business with enough capital to get started in something else. Many of these vessels end up as artificial reefs.

The habitat destruction wrought by bottom trawls is a subject that is only beginning to be publicly recognized, let alone addressed. The way that clammers and scallopers operate ( see below ) is equivalent to hunting squirrels in a public park with a bulldozer. Over the years, bottom trawling has destroyed grass beds, worm beds, rock formations, shipwrecks, snags, and fishing holes, not to mention the tremendous disturbance to the plain sandy bottom. It is estimated that the entire area of the shelf off the New Jersey coast is dragged over twice a year. This is a world-wide problem, from every coastline to the deep seas.

A recent study showed that commercial fishing is the most dangerous profession, even more hazardous than coal mining. While deaths nowadays are rare, it is still easy to lose a finger, break and arm, or get bashed in the head with all the hooks, lines, hydraulics, and heavy equipment in use on the rolling wet deck of a fishing vessel. It's not an easy life. And while I may seem critical of the industry, commercial fishermen have families to feed too, and all of your favorite seafood does not simply occur naturally at the supermarket - it has to come from somewhere.

I have had bitter complaints from commercial fishermen about these statements, but this is all a matter of record. Shall I cite a few examples? Cod, Alaskan crab, swordfish, tuna, sharks, abalone, herring, "Chilean Sea Bass", halibut, turtles, seals, whales, even sea urchins, and many other species. The latest in this long list locally seems to be goosefish, which used to be fairly common, but I have not seen or heard tell of one since they became a popular target for scallopers ( who must have run out of scallops. )

Every industry has problems, and commercial fishing has some serious ones. That is not the fault of the fishermen. Don't take it personally.


Commercial Fishing Ports

chartCommercial fishing in New Jersey is centered around several small ports, each of which has a particular type of processing or handling facility. Without the necessary facilities on shore, the boats would have no place to take their catch. Belford, in Raritan Bay, supports a fleet of long-liners and seiners with a fish processing plant. Point Pleasant is the locus for shellfisheries, and supports a large fleet of resident and transient clam dredges. Barnegat Light has mainly long-line fishing boats and scallopers, while Atlantic City and Cape May have more clammers and trawlers. Lobster boats and head boats are found all over.


The port of Belford is located in the shelter of Sandy Hook on the northern-most section of the New Jersey coast. With ready highway access, ocean-fresh seafood harvested by the fishermen based in Belford can be in New York's Fulton market within an hour or to any of tens of millions of consumers in the same day it was caught.

(c) Rich Galiano

Many of the vessels berthed in Belford are owned by members of the Belford Fishermen's Cooperative, one of the most active fishermen's cooperatives on the Atlantic Coast. The fleet is composed of otter trawlers, gill netters, lobster boats and purse seiners. Many of the fishermen there rely on the "traditional" Mid-Atlantic mixed trawl fishery, having adjusted their fishing - and marketing - efforts to be in tune with the annual migrations of the silver and red hake, fluke, flounder, sea bass and porgies that make up a large part of their harvest.

Not too many years ago Belford was home to a large fish meal and oil processing plant which utilized the menhaden stocks that are so plentiful in all of the Atlantic coastal waters. While this plant shut down fifteen or so years ago, there has been a recent resurgence in menhaden purse seining by boats out of Belford. Today, however, it is to supply menhaden to an expanding bait market.

(c) Rich Galiano
Belford, wintertime, with ice on the bay and most of the fleet out. The new
ferry terminal is at upper-right. Unfortunately, the waters around the jetty
are much too shallow for diving.

The co-op has a large, recently modernized retail market and a seafood restaurant that provide freshly caught seafood to the surrounding communities.

Point Pleasant

Located midway on the New Jersey coast, Point Pleasant could be used as a textbook example of a traditional fishing community existing in harmony with the surrounding tourist dependent businesses. With a fleet made up of medium sized otter trawlers and a few gill netters, the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative has third generation fishermen as active members. The Point Pleasant boats fish primarily local waters, making trips of from one to several days in duration and landing fresh, iced fish. The major species sought are fluke, squid, silver and red hake, and scallops.

(c) Rich Galiano

The very large surf clam fishery was pioneered in Point Pleasant and one of the first processing plants using steam shucking was built there. In recent years an increasing number of hydraulic dredge-equipped vessels have been targeting surf clams and ocean quahogs from Point Pleasant as well. Like Atlantic City, Point Pleasant no longer has any processing plants and the clams are trucked elsewhere after landing.

The Fishermen's Dock Cooperative on Channel Drive in Point Pleasant Beach is one of two active fishing cooperatives in New Jersey. Incorporated as a cooperative in the early 1950s, the Co-op (as it is known locally) is an integral part of the waterfront community of Point Pleasant Beach. Many of the Co-op's members are sons of the original founders. Several are third or fourth generation commercial fishermen.

Barnegat Light

Barnegat Light is on the northern end of Long Beach Island. Located adjacent to what was the infamous Barnegat Inlet before a multimillion dollar Corps of Engineers project brought it's fierce currents somewhat under control, Barnegat Light's two commercial docks service a fleet that ranges from small, local day boats to globe spanning long liners.

(c) Rich Galiano

Several fishermen in Barnegat Light pioneered the deep water tilefish fishery back in the 1970s and through a successful marketing campaign turned this delicious fish into the consumer's "poor man's lobster." Along with Montauk on the Eastern end of Long Island, Barnegat Light is still the center of this valuable fishery.

Barnegat Light is the home port of many members of the East Coast's long line fleet. Targeting several species of tuna as well as swordfish, on their several week or longer trips Barnegat Light long liners routinely fish from the high seas from hundreds to thousands of miles away. Barnegat Light is also home to several state-of-the-art scallop vessels and a fleet of smaller, inshore gill-netters.

Atlantic City

Docked in the shadow of the casinos in the Marina section, Atlantic City's commercial fishing fleet focuses almost exclusively on surf clams and ocean quahogs. This specialized fishery, accomplished primarily by larger (70 to 150 feet in total length) vessels equipped with hydraulic dredges, provides much of the world's supply of minced clams and clam strips. With no clam processing facilities in Atlantic City, the clams landed there are trucked to plants in Southern New Jersey or on the Delmarva peninsula.

Cape May / Wildwood

(c) Rich Galiano

At the Southernmost tip of New Jersey - and almost as far South as Washington, DC - the combined port of Cape May/Wildwood is the largest in New Jersey and one of the largest on the East Coast. The center of fish processing and freezing in New Jersey, Cape May/Wildwood is the home port to some of the largest vessels fishing on the Atlantic coast and has led the way in developing new fisheries and new domestic and international markets for New Jersey seafood. Major Cape May fisheries focus on squid, mackerel, fluke, sea bass, porgies, lobsters and menhaden. In addition to these, Wildwood boats are also in the surf clam/ocean quahog fisheries.

Like many Jersey Shore communities, much of Cape May's and Wildwood's economies are dependent on seasonal tourism - which is dependent both on the weather and the overall state of the economy. The year-round character of commercial fishing is a major factor in keeping these communities going in the off-season.

Text adapted from www.fishingnj.org - Nils E Stolpe

New York

Commercial fishing ports in New York are located along the north and south shores of Long Island, from Brooklyn and the Bronx in New York City to the eastern tip of the Island's north and south forks. New York's largest commercial fishing ports are Montauk, Shinnecock / Hampton Bays, and Greenport, all located on the East End of Long Island.

Montauk is New York's largest fishing port. Located some 120 miles east of Manhattan on the eastern tip of the south shore of Long Island, Montauk is strategically located near important fishing grounds. Fishing has been Montauk's chief industry since colonial times, and it continues to be an important part of its economy and traditions. Montauk's location, its large protected harbor on Lake Montauk, and its land based support services provide the essential elements necessary for New York's largest commercial and sport fishing fleets to thrive and prosper.

Fulton Fish Market

The Fish Market has since moved to a new location

The Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan is the largest wholesale seafood market in the U.S.  For over a century, seafood products from the entire Atlantic seaboard and other parts of the U.S. and the World have been shipped to Fulton Market for display and sale to retail stores and restaurants throughout the New York City metropolitan area.

Between 50 to 55 individual businesses are located at Fulton Market. Each business locates, buys, receives, displays, and then sells a variety of different seafood products to a range of regular and casual customers who specifically travel to Fulton to purchase the seafood products they need. Some firms specialize in certain types of products or products from specific parts of the country or the world.


Trawlers ( "Draggers" )

(c) Rich Galiano
A small local trawler. The net is stowed on the large white spool aft, while the wooden otter boards are stowed alongside. Newer vessels like this put the fishing gear over the stern, while some older trawlers still put the net and otter boards over the starboard side, leaving the port side free for loading and unloading at the dock.

A single-vessel otter trawl - the net is spread open by large boards known as "otter boards."
Two-vessel trawling operations can dispense with the otter boards, and also
make use of much larger ( in some cases enormous ) nets.

netsA trawler or "dragger" is a vessel that tows its fishing gear, typically a weighted net, across the bottom. Trawler nets are easily snagged on bottom obstructions. This results in damage to the gear, if not outright loss, so trawlers try to avoid such "hangs", and make note of new ones when encountered. Lost fishing nets often form shrouds over shipwrecks, which are not only dangerous to scuba divers, but go on killing marine life for many years until they disintegrate. Modern "rolling nets" are much more resistant to snagging, allowing the trawlers to run closer to and even over the old obstructions that once gave the fish at least some haven.

Rolling nets and other bottom gear in action
The video focuses on the lower lip of the net, the rest of it arches up out of sight.
( The soundtrack is a little melodramatic, you might want to turn it off. )

(c)  2007 Rich Galiano
A rolling net set out to dry. The rollers are cut from old tires.

Trawlers are often the initial discoverers of shipwrecks, or "snags", as they refer to them. Trawler captains keep extensive lists of loran coordinates for snags, which can quickly destroy their expensive gear. This way they can avoid those places in the future. They usually are willing to share these coordinates with each other, and also with the dive boat captains, who sometimes assist them by recovering lost fishing equipment.


There are still a fair number of small net-trawlers operating in New Jersey waters. I'm not sure what they are after, as most economically important food fishes are too depleted in local waters to be worth going after. For example, due to excessive trawl fishing, Cod populations throughout the North Atlantic have collapsed to such low levels that some scientists doubt the fish will ever recover. Two fisheries that are still reasonably healthy are surf clams and scallops, which are targeted by specialized trawlers known as dredges - see below.

The local trawler fleet is comprised mostly of smaller draggers, up to 80 feet or so in total length. Not large enough to venture far offshore or to make extended trips, their fishing activities are mostly restricted to the waters of the New York Bight. They are all participants in what is called a mixed-trawl fishery, their fishing activities dictated by the migratory patterns of the fish through the Bight and the vagaries of the fresh fish market. They primarily target fluke, silver hake and squid but in the past have also had significant landings of winter flounder, bluefish, monkfish and scallop.

(c) Rich Galiano
Local trawlers are small vessels of usually less than 100 feet,
unlike the massive factory-trawlers employed by some foreign nations.

Russian super-trawler, with on-board factory facilities for processing, packaging,
and freezing tens of thousands of tons of seafood, often purloined from the
sovereign waters of other countries that lack the means to defend them.


The naval trawler is a concept for expeditiously converting a nation's fishing boats and fishermen to military assets. England used trawlers during World War II to maintain control of seaward approaches to major harbors. No one knew these waters as well as local fishermen, and the trawler was the ship type these fishermen understood and could operate effectively without further instruction. The Royal Navy maintained a small inventory of trawlers in peacetime, but requisitioned much larger numbers of civilian trawlers in wartime. The larger and newer trawlers and whalers were converted for antisubmarine use and the older and smaller trawlers were converted to minesweepers.

A single deck gun was mounted on each trawler. Antisubmarine trawlers were usually given a 4" gun approximately equal to the deck guns of the submarines they might encounter. Minesweeping trawlers usually received a 12 pounder, although vintage 3 pounders or 6 pounders were sometimes fitted temporarily until more suitable weapons became available. Trawlers were also given between two and four .303 calibre Lewis guns which were later augmented with a similar number of 20mm machine guns. In a surface battle with a U-boat, the trawler attempted to dissuade the U-boat deck gun crew with machine guns, while the U-boat might similarly aim its 20mm at the trawler's unshielded deck gun.

Antisubmarine trawlers were fitted with ASDIC and a few depth charge racks. Antisubmarine trawlers were typically assigned to five-ship groups. Small trawlers were difficult torpedo targets; and, while a U-boat might best a single trawler in a gunnery contest, it would be unable to withstand the combined attention of several trawlers. Antisubmarine trawlers could establish and maintain defensive perimeters around convoy assembly areas within which individual cargo ships could gain their formation stations for ocean steaming.

Trawlers are eminently seaworthy; so, when convoy escorts were needed after the fall of France, antisubmarine trawlers were pressed into escort service for which they were poorly suited. With maximum speeds of 10 to 12 knots, trawlers were able to maintain screening stations, but unable to maneuver effectively. If a trawler left station to investigate a contact or rescue the crew of a torpedoed ship, hours might pass before the trawler could regain station on the moving convoy. Escorting trawlers might discourage a timid U-boat acting independently, but an aggressive U-boat captain could use the superior surface speed of the U-boat to outmaneuver trawlers.


Clam Dredges

(c) Debbie Clause
The Adriatic - an old clam dredge, Notice the "birds" hanging from the ends of the outriggers.
These are lowered into the water while under way to stabilize the vessel.

clamA dredge is a vessel designed to remove sediment from the bottom, generally for the purpose of widening and deepening ship channels. However, the term is often applied to a specialized type of trawler. A clam dredge is a special type of trawler that takes clams from the sand. The device that actually does this is also called a dredge. Resembling a large steel cage, it is dragged across the sandy bottom, and rakes out the shellfish, along with rocks, debris, some bottom fish and lobsters, the occasional lost anchor, and anything else that is in its path.

Since clams live in the sediment, and must be dug out, the clamming gear is large and heavy, requiring a large and powerful vessel to operate it. Larger vessels have an economic advantage over smaller ones, especially under present-day catch rules. The older, smaller independent clammers have all but died out, and the industry is now dominated by about 50 corporate fleet-owned vessels, some of which are of enormous proportions. ( All of the red boats in Point Pleasant are owned by Foxy-Kelleher Inc. of Cape May. )

(c) Rich Galiano
The clam docks along the Manasquan River in Point Pleasant

(c) Rich Galiano

(c) Rich Galiano
Sherri Ann heads out from Point Pleasant for a cruise.
A typical medium-sized clam dragger.

(c) Rich Galiano

A better view of the massive clam dredge and water hoses, stowed up in the angled A-frame, with the black hydraulic hose folded on top. Most modern vessels take the dredge over the stern, while older vessels take it over the side.

(c) Rich Galiano
Enterprise is of the old side-trawl design.
Here, water drains from her dredge as it is hauled up to check the catch.

(c) Rich Galiano
A modern hydraulic clam dredge

Hydraulic dredging for surf clams began in the 1940s, and reached its peak in the 1960s. It is still probably the most important local commercial fishery.

New Jersey Artificial Reef Program
Side-scan sonar image of bottom marks left behind by a clam dredge. The marks
are on the order of one foot deep. Even the trails of much smaller scallop dredges
are quite obvious to divers.

There must have been something especially good at this location to be worth dragging over it repeatedly in circles. In inshore areas and bays, dredging like this is extremely destructive of aquatic vegetation and shellfish beds, and is prohibited. It is estimated that the entire area of the Grand Banks is dragged-over like every year. This is a tremendous disturbance. New Jersey is probably similarly used.

NOAADredge dimensions are approximately 6-9 feet wide by 18-20 feet long; each dredge is custom-made on-site as needed. Construction is welded steel. The dredge is raised and lowered on the steel cable, which is slackened when towing. The dredge is towed on a 3-4" nylon line; movement is in the direction of the arrow. The elasticity of the nylon prevents the whole towing apparatus from being destroyed should the dredge be hung-up on an obstruction. The steel cable also serves as a backup should the nylon line part.

NOAAWater is pumped down from the boat through the 8" water hose into a manifold at the front of the dredge. Nozzles in the manifold direct water jets into the sea floor to break it up and raise out the clams, which are scooped into the dredge by the cutting bar underneath. Small clams fall through the measured gaps between the bars and are left behind. At intervals of 5-10 minutes, the dredge is brought up to check and empty if necessary.

NOAAOnce they are brought aboard, the clams are put into large wire mesh boxes known as cages. Each clam cage weighs several hundred pounds empty, and several thousand full. Every  vessel is allowed to carry a certain safe number of cages, but the captains and owners sometimes think they know better, and load on extras. This, combined with the massive weight and high center of gravity of the stowed dredging rig itself, affects both the stability and buoyancy of the vessel, and contributes to the high accident rate of these vessels.

Right - Empty clam cages on deck. In the background is the A-frame that raises and lowers the dredge.

Clams are very heavy - when full, the individual cages weigh thousands of pounds, requiring considerable port-side facilities for offloading and processing. Point Pleasant has one of the few clam processing plants in the state, and all the local clam boats tie up nearby, along with the occasional out-of-towner.

(c) Rich Galiano
Looking down at clam cages in the cargo hold of the Beth Dee Bob.
The Beth Dee Bob is a superb example of a sunken clam dredge,
with all of her equipment still in place, unlike an artificial reef

Beth Dee BobWhen such an overloaded vessel is caught out in heavy seas, it is at much greater risk of capsizing or foundering. With too high a center of gravity, a vessel might not recover when rolled by a wave. Instead it goes completely over, and sinks. This is what may have happened to the Adriatic. An overloaded vessel might also sink under the extra weight of water from a wave breaking over the stern. This is exactly what the survivors of the Cape Fear described - instead of the water draining away, the back of the vessel simply kept going under and the ship sank. Another risk for any towing vessel is "tripping" - becoming somehow entangled in your own gear and capsizing. This is not an uncommon occurrence with tugboats, and may also have been the cause of the loss of the Adriatic. Of all the fishing vessels described here, clam dredges are by far the most common shipwrecks. Large powerful clam dredges have also been known to destroy old wooden shipwrecks outright - sometimes dragging right through and tearing them apart.

I am not aware of any environmental impact study ever being done on this, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the damage is great: high spots are pulled down, rock piles and shipwrecks are dispersed and buried, grass beds, structure and habitat are destroyed, fishing grounds are ruined. It is a tribute to the resiliency of the bottom organisms that they survive at all.


Scallop Dredges

scallopScallop dredging is similar to clam dredging in that large metal rakes are dragged across the bottom. However, that is where the resemblance ends. Since scallops live on the surface, unlike buried clams, they can be harvested with much lighter-weight gear. A scallop rake is typically much smaller than a clam rake, consisting of a triangular frame with a chain-link catch-bag. No hydraulics are necessary. Such gear does not require as much towing power as for clamming. Since scallops are cleaned at sea as they are caught, and all the heavy shells discarded, there is also much less on-board storage requirement. Scallop boats can therefore be smaller than clam boats, and some are quite small indeed. In fact, the entire business model seems to be different, and it appears that a few small privately-owned operations persist to this day, in contrast to clamming, which is now dominated by a few corporate fleets.


Typical scallop dredging operation

(c) Rich Galiano
A scallop rake stuck in a wreck

In search of their prey, scallopers seem to be more inclined than clammers to drag close to wrecks and other known bottom obstructions. While a huge clam dredge will often tear right through an old shipwreck, a small scallop rake is much more likely to get stuck and lost, and there are a number of them around on various wrecks.

(c) Rich Galiano
The Christian & Alexa is one of the few big local scallop boats.

Port and starboard rakes are stowed vertically amidships, and deployed at once over each side. That is why the side of the vessel is all scarred and rusted, while the stern is enclosed. Since scallops are shucked at sea, she does not require the same heavy port facilities as the clammers, and docks at a different location.


Seiners & Gill-netters

(c) Rich Galiano
A small purse seiner. Note the outboard skiff on the stern, used in setting out the net.
The net itself is piled on the back deck. The boat's booms handle both the net and the skiff,
while the crow's nest on the mast gives a bird's eye view of operations.

Setting out a purse seine

A purse seine net is a complex device with floats at the top and lead weights at the bottom. Often, a skiff is used to draw out the floating net around the fish. The purse line at the bottom of the net is then drawn in, closing it off and trapping the fish. The net is then taken aboard over a large roller, either at the side or the stern. The mesh is usually sized to let small fish escape while retaining large ones.

MossbunkerMost of the purse seining done in New Jersey waters is for Mossbunker, which is used as bait. Mossbunker, aka Menhaden, is also ground up for animal feed and fertilizer, but fishing it for such uses is banned in state waters, which hopefully does something to save our fish from the fleets of huge offshore "bunker boats" that travel the world's oceans vacuuming out the fish. Local seining boats tend to be small.

seinePurse seining like this is also the preferred method of catching tuna and other pelagic fishes. Dolphins that travel with schools of such fishes are often trapped in the nets and drown. Why they don't just jump out is a mystery. In recent years, new methods of purse seining have reduced such unfortunate bycatches.

seineGillnetting is a method of fishing in which a net with a specific mesh size is used to ensnare fish of a specific matching size. The fish can swim part-way but not all the way through the net. When it tries to back out, it becomes snagged on its gill covers. Smaller fish pass harmlessly through the mesh, and larger fish are not ensnared. A gillnet boat would be similar to a seiner; I cannot tell them apart.



(c) Rich Galiano
A long-liner returns to its home port of Belford.
Long-lining is a very labor-intensive operation, and the asymmetrical hull design, high on one side and low on the other, affords the crew some protection from the weather. Gear is also stored along the high wall, and recovered, along with the catch, along the low wall.


bookLong-lining is an ancient form of fishing in which multiple baited hooks are attached with leaders to a long backbone line, which is suspended at a targeted depth from buoys, and either anchored or allowed to drift. This targets surface-feeding fishes such as Swordfish. Long-lines may also be set deep to target bottom-feeding fishes such as cod. Commercial long-line fishing in the North Atlantic began in the early 1960s. The lines may be 15 miles long or more.

Long-lining is a fairly indiscriminate method that catches whatever takes the bait, and the bycatch is significant. In the last few decades the long-line fishing industry has grown tremendously, with large boats putting out miles of line in search of sharks and swordfish, both of which are now greatly reduced in numbers. The Andrea Gail of The Perfect Storm was a Gloucester "Sword Boat," but many such vessels are also based right here in New Jersey and Long Island. New Jersey boats are more likely to be after sharks than swordfish.

SwordfishSword fishermen routinely discarded thousands of sharks as bycatch, most of which were dead already, and the rest killed before they could be safely handled. When swordfish became scarce, the long liners began targeting the sharks themselves instead. Now sharks are scarce.

A monstrous variation on long lining is drift netting, practiced mainly in the Pacific by far-eastern fishing fleets. Huge floating nets, sometimes hundreds of miles long, are set out to ensnare anything that comes along. There is no such thing as bycatch to a drift-netter - tuna, sharks, squid, seals, dolphins, turtles, whales - everything goes into the freezer. When such a net is lost, it goes on killing until it eventually sinks under the weight of all the rotting sea life it has captured. Drift netting is largely banned, but some countries pay little heed to international law, and far out at sea where no one is watching ...


Lobster Boats

A typical lobster boat off the coast of Maine. New Jersey boats are similar. Traps
are hauled up by a hydraulic lift; steel plating protects the side of the boat.

A modern wire lobster trap, showing the method of deployment, with
floats marking the ends of strings of traps. Traps are also often set out singly.

(c) Rich Galiano
A lost lobster trap on the bottom, with a big eel inside. The trap has been opened up.

(c) Rich Galiano
Modern wire-mesh lobster traps on a dock

photo: Jerry Granberg / Joseph Terzuoli
An old-style wooden lobster trap. Nowadays, these are considered antiques,
and are used for landscaping, and sometimes even as furniture !

Guilty plea in lobster boat feud

Set rival's craft afire, man admits

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 12/5/06

A Point Pleasant man pleaded guilty Monday to torching the lobster boat Baby Doll on April 17, 2001 - the bungled climax of a volatile feud between two families jockeying for key trapping spots in the Atlantic Ocean.

[Smith], 40, pleaded guilty to one count of third-degree arson before Superior Court Judge Patricia Del Bueno Cleary, sitting in Freehold. He will serve 90 days in the Monmouth County Jail, Freehold Township.

[Smith] admitted that in April 2001, he set fire to [Jones]'s 38-foot lobster boat while it sat in a slip in a marina off the Shark River's north channel in Neptune. The fire spread to an adjacent slip and damaged another lobster boat - the 35-foot Wacker's Toy - but [Smith] testified he did not intend to damage that boat when he set the fire.

"This case involved a fire deliberately set by a commercial lobsterman who sought to intimidate other lobstermen in order to secure a territorial advantage," said Monmouth County Prosecutor Luis A. Valentin in a prepared statement. "This plea agreement ensures that the defendant will be held accountable for his dangerous criminal activity."

[Smith] is currently free on $172,500 bail.

The guilty plea is but the latest chapter of the tumultuous conflict between [Smith] and [Jones], which stretches back several years and is centered on who should be able to fish where for lobster. According to court testimony over the years, [Jones] and his sons often blamed the crew of [Smith]'s boat, the Heather Ann, for stealing and cutting their lobster lines.

In May 2004, [Jones], a Howell resident, pleaded guilty to taking a Wingmaster shotgun on board the Baby Doll on March 8, 2001, and firing it at [Smith]. [Jones] testified that there was a confrontation with the crew of the Heather Ann at the Mud Hole fishing grounds, in federal waters off Monmouth County. He intended to shoot [Smith] to scare him, but instead hit his brother, [John], 43, wounding his arms and leg. One shotgun pellet had to be removed from his hip.

In the court hearings for the matter, the crews of both boats said the other side shot first. [Smith] fired at least one round from a .223-caliber Mini-14 carbine - hitting no one - before the boats drifted apart.

(c) Rich Galiano

After the shooting incident, the Heather Ann was damaged in a suspicious fire on April 6, 2001, while docked in Point Pleasant Beach. No charges were ever filed in that case. The Baby Doll went up in smoke 11 days later.

[Smith] is not the only lobsterman who has lit a match to edge out the competition. In January 2002, arson destroyed a trawler at the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach. In April 2003, fisherman [Doe], 41, of New Bedford, Mass., was sentenced to seven years in prison for setting the fire, which authorities said was related to a battle over prime fishing grounds.

At the time, local fishermen said the arson was motivated by arguments between trawler and gill-net fishermen about competition in the winter monkfish fishery. [Doe] was a crewman on a gill net boat, which set fixed nets on the ocean floor that are sometimes snagged by the nets dragged by trawlers.

James A. Quirk: (732) 308-7758 or jquirk@app.com

Names omitted by editor

The moral of the story is: don't touch lobster traps. Lobstermen take their business very seriously. In Maine, where it is illegal for divers to take lobster, lobstermen once would shoot at you if they thought you were messing with their traps.


Charter Fishing Boats

(c) Rich Galiano
Every inlet and bay has a fleet of charter fishing boats

"Head boats" like the one shown are our major competition every morning - racing out to get to the best spots first. If you want to know why dive boats leave so god-awful early in the morning, this is one reason. Their behavior depends on the captain - many are friendly and accommodating, others are downright rude, and some won't even answer the radio. Dive boats sometimes recover lost anchors for the friendly boats, which can be quite a production, since some of them have very big anchors !


Fish Traps

A fixed fish trap. The curtain nets stretch from surface to bottom,
and the fish are funneled into holding areas.

Fish traps are only practical in shallow water. They have the advantage of keeping both the targeted catch and the bycatch alive ( unless a shark gets in ! ) You can still see a few fish traps in use in Raritan Bay, where they are built around fixed pilings rather than buoys and anchors as shown here. In years past, shore-based trawling or "haul seining" was also practiced in the bay, where a net would be deployed off the beach by a small boat, and drawn in by donkeys or trucks.

haulHaul Seining

An estimated 50 tons of spawning Striped Bass is taken in a single net on a Virginia beach in 1972. This type of fishing would be completely illegal today.

The main fishery in Raritan Bay has always been Mossbunker.

A similar type of fixed fish trap is the gill net, which uses a specific-size mesh to trap a certain size of fish. When the fish tries to swim through the net, only its head fits. Then when it tries to back away, it becomes ensnared by its gill covers. This kind of gill netting is fairly specific, as smaller fish pass through the net unharmed, and bigger ones don't get caught in the mesh. A terrible variation of this is drift-netting, described above.

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