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Profile: From Selling Bait to Managing the Belford Seafood Co-Op -- A Fish Story

Joseph Branin has spent his life on or around the water, and that includes building his own 50-foot trawler to fish farther offshore

joseph brannin
Joseph Branin

Who: Joseph Branin

Age: 69

Family: Married, three daughters, one son

Home: Highlands

What he does: General manager of Belford Seafood Co-op for nearly 20 years.

How many fishermen in the co-op: There are 18 to 20 boats active in the Belford fishing fleet, and some 50 families make their living there.

How does the co-op work: Fishermen bring in their haul, and the fish are then sent to a market, and the fishermen are paid according to the price the fish is selling for that day.

“It all sells. You just never know what price you’re going to get for it. If there’s a lot of that species in the market, you’re going to get a lowball price. If it’s something less plentiful, you’ll get a good price,” Branin says.

How he got there: Branin started selling bait and gas at a dock in the Highlands when he was 12 years old. The dock was owned by the Cottrell family, who not only had bait and fuel businesses but also fishing boats, so when Branin graduated high school, he would go out with them on their fishing boats.

But it was the 1960s in Highlands, a time when he says lobster fishing was hot. He worked with the Cottrell’s until about 1974, when he bought his own boat, a lobster boat from Montauk, Long Island. He fished for lobsters for about four years, 100 feet offshore. He decided he wanted to go out in deeper water, initially for lobster fishing and then for trawling, but going out farther required a bigger boat. So he built one, a 50-foot trawler with plans from a famed boat designer from Damariscotta, ME, named Frederick W. Bates. It took nine months to complete it.

“It’s a whole different element out there in 300 to 400 foot of water. It’s a lot different than fishing in 100 feet,” he said. “The gear has to be heavier, the rope has to be stronger. But it’s a lot nicer. The water is crystal. You see your sharks, your whales, all the time. It’s just beautiful.”

Trawling is like hauling in treasure. You can target a certain species of fish, but in the end, you never know what you’re going to get, Branin said.

“You can have a net full of fish or just a teardrop of fish in the bag, but it’s always a surprise. You dump it out on the deck and just sort through it,” he said.

He fished out of the Highlands for several years, where his brother owned a dock, but he made his way over to Long Island, where he would sleep on his boat during the week and then fish for cod in the Jones Beach Inlet and then go home to his wife and family on weekends.

Branin says the cod fishing was good on Long Island back in the early 1980s. The fish would migrate there in the winter. But after a while, either the cod stopped migrating there or the catch was getting depleted.

“If I could catch a truckload, I’d stay catching cod. But the cod faded out like I faded out. When something gets to where it’s no good, you go to something else,” he said.

That something else was returning to Belford, where he trawled for whatever was the catch of the day from 1984 to July 1996, when he decided to pack up his fishing career and run the Seafood Co-op. The job entails communicating with the markets and running the day-to-day sales, and overseeing the co-op’s operating budget, which is funded by the take they get from the fishermen. The members receive about 85 cents on the dollar of all their sales while the co-op receives the balance.

What are the biggest issues facing co-op members: The same issues facing all commercial fishermen in New Jersey: quotas. State fishing authorities institute what Branin views as arbitrary quotas, to assure a species doesn’t get depleted, but they don’t appreciate how much they’re tinkering with someone’s livelihood. Commercial fishermen can’t catch striped bass. They can’t use horseshoe crabs for bait. The list of restrictions goes on, he says.

“When they first started with the regulations, we said we’d never be able to make a living this way. And lo and behold, the regulations helped rebuild the stock. But a lot of the stock they say is depleted has rebounded, 100 percent, but for some reason, they keep a tight noose on it instead of loosening the strings and allowing a little bit more of a catch,” he said. “It’s just not right what the government has done to the fishing industry.”

Branin said he used to lobby more on behalf of the fishermen. Not so much anymore. He leaves that to the Garden State Seafood Association. He’s almost 70 and doesn’t see that it would make much of a difference. The recreational fishermen in New Jersey are far better funded.

“After all these years, you get it up to your eyeballs, and enough is enough,” he said. “I’m tired of working. I’ve been working since I’m 11 years old.”

How did Hurricane Sandy affect his job: Sandy shut the co-op down for almost two months, knocking out its electrical and refrigeration systems, and destroying a restaurant, docks, and offices. But most of it is up and running again.

But when Branin thinks of hurricanes, the most memorable was Hurricane Donna, which arrived when he was 14 and lying in a hospital bed in New York City, having just had his hip fused. He’d been suffering with pain for several years with a bone infection called osteomyelitis that was causing his hip joint to decay. He recalls going in to the hospital and waking up a few days later and his mother showed him pictures of all this devastation in the Highlands. Trees were down, boats had been lifted up into the air and slammed onto pilings when they came back down.

He says he remembers lying in a ward of 16 beds feeling sorry for himself, when he looked around him and saw people who had lost arms and legs.

“That’s when I learned there’s always someone worse than you. I told myself, stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with your life,” he said. “I never looked back.”

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