As Economy Has Faltered, New Jersey’s Fishing Industry Gets Walloped

NJ’s commercial fishing industry is fifth largest in US; its sales have cratered in the pandemic
Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
A worker on the Cape May flats; Brian Harman of Cape May Salt Oyster Company said, “…suddenly we have all these oysters and nowhere to sell them.”

From Delaware Bay oysters to Atlantic scallops, the state’s fisheries are struggling to survive as retail sales dry up.

In the town of Port Norris, on South Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore, the first weeks of spring have for well over a century marked the beginning of the annual oyster harvest, a time when the waters of the Maurice River burst to life with a commercial fleet eager for prosperous days ahead. But as the first few weeks of the season come to a close, Port Norris remains still, a sign of just how deep the COVID-19 pandemic has drilled into the state’s economy.

“It’s brought things to a halt,” said Steve Fleetwood, president of Bivalve Packing, South Jersey’s largest wild-caught oyster processor. Already, Fleetwood has had to lay off some of his roughly 20 employees, who, in a rural community as small as Port Norris, are friends and neighbors. “I hate to see people without jobs,” he continued. “Hopefully we can suck it up and wait it out.”

Facing tough days ahead

Bivalve Packing is just a small piece of a complex, deeply intertwined supply chain facing tough days ahead. Up and down the New Jersey coast, from the packing houses of Port Norris, to the clam fleets of Atlantic City, to the bunker boats at the Belford Seafood Co-Op, the state’s commercial fishing industry — the fifth largest in the U.S., according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (or NOAA Fisheries) — has seen sales evaporate as local fish markets and restaurants close, and big-box grocery shoppers shy away from fresh seafood.

Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
At Bivalve Packing there isn’t enough work to keep busy for more than an hour.

“There are about 1.2 million U.S. jobs in the seafood sector, from water to table,” said Gavin Gibbons, the vice president of communications at the National Fisheries Institute, a nonprofit that monitors the U.S. seafood industry. “Whether you’re talking about producers, processors, boat owners, or the people pulling the fish out of the water, seafood is a value chain that has to be completely functioning, or else there’s a cascading effect on the whole industry.”

Relief for New Jersey’s fishing and aquaculture industries, which contribute more than $1 billion annually to the state’s economy, is ostensibly on the way in the form of the $2 trillion CARES Act. Under the bill, $300 million in NOAA Fisheries disaster relief funding has been set aside for “Tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants,” including aquaculture businesses, that have suffered revenue losses greater than 35%, compared to their prior five-year average revenue. (Commercial seafood harvesting and processing have been deemed essential work by the state and federal governments.)

But in a March 24 letter to Congress, seafood industry leaders requested $4 billion in aid. “The U.S. seafood industry is about a $100 billion-dollar industry,” Gibbons said. The $300 million, he said, “is a start.”

A more urgent concern is that the aid is not reaching — and may never reach — those who need it most. David Tauro, manager of Belford Seafood Co-Op’s fish market, in Monmouth County, compared the current situation to the weeks and months after Superstorm Sandy, in 2012. “We had Sandy blow us apart, and we never got any money from National Marine Fisheries,” Tauro said. “It went to the bigger docks, and I’m just afraid it’s going to happen again.”

Sam Martin, COO of Cape May-based Atlantic Capes Fisheries, a seafood conglomerate that operates more than 25 vessels and employs some 400 workers, expressed similar worry. “It will not go far,” Martin said, referring to the federal aid. “It’s highly dependent on how long we’re in the shelter-in-place aspect of the crisis.”

While Atlantic Capes has maintained over 75% of its employees, which is one of the stipulations for receiving aid from the CARES Act, Martin is not yet sure if the company will receive any money from the relief package. “Quite frankly, it’s not really been outlined as to all the details on how to receive [aid],” Martin said. “We don’t have any clear answers on how to apply and what we do qualify for, because it changes weekly, if not daily.”

On April 20, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine wrote in a tweet that the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, has not yet released the aid. “The funding was signed into law on March 27,” Collins wrote, “but as of today this critical support hasn’t been distributed to those who desperately need it.”

A history of struggle

Back at Bivalve Packing, Fleetwood isn’t holding his breath for any relief from the state or federal government. “We’ve been through some terrible, terrible times,” he said. “And we’ve never had anybody help us before.”

At the height of its abundance, in 1957, the bay’s oyster stock was decimated by a then-unknown parasitic disease, and South Jersey’s oyster industry never fully recovered. The 1990s brought another scourge, which led to the state’s closure of the entirety of its beds. When New Jersey reopened the bay in 1996, the surviving oystermen banded together to self-regulate, as well as work closely with the Rutgers University Shellfish Research Laboratory, which is located in Port Norris, to cultivate a healthier, more resilient fishery that, in recent years has yielded some of the best harvests in decades.

The Delaware Bay oyster industry’s challenges with maintaining a healthy stock is reflective of the history of struggle for commercial fishermen across the state. Throughout the second half of the last century, overfishing, pollution, habitat damage, and behavioral fluctuations due in part to climate change led to the local collapse of once abundant fish and shellfish populations. Ever-tightening regulations intended to achieve sustainability have roundly been considered by commercial and recreational fishermen alike to be draconian, particularly for small-scale operations that rely on fresh, direct-to-market sales.

Nevertheless, Fleetwood, who was among the leaders of the Delaware Bay oyster industry’s transition in the 1990s, does not yet see the COVID-19 pandemic as an event as devastating as the previous die-off crises. “This is bad, but is it years without no product to sell, like we had in the past?” he said. “No, it’s not that bad.”

At least, not yet. Fleetwood concedes that he is worried about consumer behavior after New Jersey, and the rest of the country, begin to restart their economies. Questions remain how restaurants will handle social distancing — will takeout-only policies persist, or seating be reduced to allow for extra space between customers? With raw seafood, especially shellfish, health concerns are always more acute — how will it be viewed in a post-pandemic world? “Will all those people who bought oysters be ready to eat them again?” Fleetwood said. “I hope so.”

For Tauro and the fishermen of the Belford Seafood Co-Op, hoping for consumers to return to pre-pandemic dining behavior is a prospect not available to them any time soon. Their primary market — New York City — is essentially shuttered. “I need New York to open,” Tauro said. “That’s eight to 11 million potential customers that go out to eat three or four times a week that we don’t have right now, and it’s literally killing us.”

“This is a different type of emergency, and what is called for is liquidity for these businesses,” Gibbons said. “It is really important for NOAA to take this seriously and to be thinking differently than they have in the past.”

In response to questions about the disbursal of the $300 million in aid, a NOAA spokeswoman said, “NOAA Fisheries understands the urgent need for these funds, and our overriding goal is to distribute the assistance as quickly as possible. To that end, we are working daily with the Department and our federal partners to finalize a process to expedite the distribution of [the] funds, consistent with the direction provided by Congress.”

Not expecting business as usual any time soon

Down the road from Bivalve Packing, tucked between a sweeping crushed clamshell parking lot and the Maurice River, is the headquarters of Cape May Salt Oyster Company, a subsidiary of Atlantic Capes.

Cape May Salt cultivates the bulk of its oysters in cages on a shallow, sandy area of the Bayshore, called the Cape May flats; therefore the amount of product the company can keep is limited to the number of empty cages it has on hand. “We had a huge volume of oysters that were going to come to market size in April, and we were going to more than double production,” said general manager Brian Harman. “Then this thing came and suddenly we have all these oysters and nowhere to sell them.”

Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
Oysters are also cultivated in cages on a shallow, sandy area of the Delaware Bayshore called the Cape May flats.

In order to save his market-size oysters before they grow too large, causing their value to drop, and to avoid running out of cages, Harman has been spending his days in quarantine feverishly researching alternatives. Although Cape May Salt has in the past sold only fresh oysters, Harman is considering using his access to Atlantic Capes’ equipment and facilities in Cape May to individually quick-freeze half-shell oysters, as well as producing “value-added” products, like oysters Rockefeller. “Anybody in this industry who thinks it’s going to be business as usual right away is crazy,” he said. “It’s going to look different.”

Michael LaVecchia, who, along with his brother, owns a clam fleet of five boats out of Atlantic City, is in a similar situation to Harman. The LaVecchias also own LaMonica Fine Foods, a seafood processing and supply company based in nearby Millville, where there is room to store extra inventory, which is all canned, until the retail market returns to normalcy. The LaVecchias’ company is diversified enough to weather the pandemic — it’s the independent “father and son” fishermen whose entire incomes are tied up in a single boat and a single product that he is worried about. “They’re hurting through all this,” LaVecchia said. “They’re not going to make it if there’s not some help.”

At Atlantic Capes, COO Sam Martin pointed out, as did LaVecchia, that business briefly spiked in the days after Gov. Phil Murphy issued the statewide stay-at-home order, as consumers rushed grocery stores and stocked up on food and supplies. But now, while big-box grocers continue to buy Atlantic Capes’ frozen scallops — New Jersey’s most valuable fishery, worth roughly $65 million — sales of its fresh products “have pretty much stopped.”

“We’re just stockpiling inventory mainly to keep people employed,” Martin said, adding that the company has begun outsourcing cold storage space for the excess inventory. “So, we’ve been kind of taking it on the financial chin.”

At the Belford Seafood Co-Op, David Tauro’s saving grace right now is the fish market, which is being stocked by a couple of his boats that are still going out on the water. “Nobody’s going out to dinner, so the store is doing okay,” he said. “But it can’t sustain 13 trawlers.”

You’ve got to be an optimist

Early on a recent cold, clear morning, Fleetwood stood in the Bivalve Packing parking lot, in a socially distanced circle with three of his guys, all of them in facemasks; he was trying to find something for them to do for the day. In the distance, oyster boats sat along the docks, tied up and clean with nowhere to go.

In normal times, Fleetwood’s five boats — two of which have been in operation for more than a century — would be out on the bay, crisscrossing the state-owned beds, dredging tens of thousands of oysters bound for restaurants and raw bars across the country. In total, the Bayshore’s tiny wild-caught oyster fleet lands around $10 million worth of the mollusks annually, and Bivalve Packing makes up a large portion of that revenue.

Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
A sign at Bivalve Packing

Inside the packing house, two other men, their faces also wrapped in masks, got to work sorting a cage — about a ton’s worth — of oysters that some local markets had ordered. Only two other cages sat in the corner of the damp 1750-square-foot refrigerated warehouse. With so few oysters, the packers’ workday would be over in about an hour.

A gruff man who has endured more economic hardship than most, Fleetwood is proud of the fact that he’s kept Bivalve Packing afloat through the years, and without borrowing or taking much money from anyone. But even for him, an assurance that his business will receive just a sliver of the fisheries bail-out aid would be nice. “I’m just trying to keep the guys going and hoping for the best,” he said. “I’ve been saying for 40 years, you got to be an optimist to be in the oyster business — if you’re not, you better quit.”

Outside the refrigerated warehouse, one of Fleetwood’s office managers pushed her timecard into an old punch clock, the thud echoing through the cinderblock hallway. Written on a nearby whiteboard was, “Anyone feeling sick please take the day off or more, hope you feel better.” For those who were left, it was payday.