Fisherman Say Industry is Dying in NJ

By Brenda Flanagan

“Nobody can go buy a boat and get into the fishing business. Can’t do it. They’d starve to death,” said Richard Isaksen.

Isaksen’s trawler, Isaetta, rocks against the dock at Belford’s Seafood Co-Op. Years ago, Isaetta and a dozen other 60-footers would’ve been out on the water, but this morning they’re tied up with both ropes and regulations, their captains complain. This, on top of devastation wrought by Sandy almost three years ago.

“Sandy destroyed us. I mean, it wiped out everything. Wiped the dock out, refrigeration. That really hurt us. I mean, we struggled to get back to open up,” he said.

A new survey by the National Marine Fisheries Service notes Sandy wreaked $250 million worth of uninsured losses and damage to New Jersey’s fishing industry, and about three quarters of Jersey’s fishing-related businesses reported revenues down by a third, a year after the storm.

“We’re still not right, yet. I don’t think we’ll ever be right. We just can’t make enough money to get back,” Isaksen said.

“Every one of my boats are sitting here at the dock,” said Dock Manager Dave Tauro. And what is that doing to your business? He says it’s horrible. “I mean we’re a skeleton crew, they’re talking about layoffs. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

“The first thing that happens when you lose income is the crews leave and the boats suffer, because you don’t have the money to spend to maintain them properly,” said Captain Roy Diehl.

Diehl says, it costs $25,000 to pull big trawlers like Donna Lynn out for major maintenance, so boat owners wait longer — 3 to 4 years between trips. The report says captains cut the size of crews in half.

“We’re probably 70 percent back running, but there’s no income. We’re not allowed to fish,” said Diehl.

He last went out for fluke in mid-August. Federal quotas restrict when commercial fishermen can trawl. The feds track boats with special GPS transmitters.

“We do care deeply about the fishermen, we know this is their bread and butter. Our goal is to manage these fish stocks sustainability so that we can ensure that these fisherman are going to be able to fish in the future,” said Rita Curtis, Economist for the NOAA Fisheries.

With boats moored, the Belford Co-Op sells stock bought at NYC’s Fulton Fish Market. The report also found traffic tanked at many fishing-related businesses, like bait & tackle shops. Up in Atlantic Highlands, the marina’s not full.

“There’s loads of empty slips down there. The reason for that is a lot of people’s boats got wrecked in the storm and I guess they didn’t get enough insurance money to refurbish them and put them back together,” Kevin Guerin said.

Charter boats still take clients out fluke, but even repeat customers say fishing’s off.

“A lot of people come out, they spend money, they want to take something home with them and they don’t,” Bill O’Hara said.

At least Sea Tiger is out on the water today, unlike Mt. Sinai, Tiffany and Isaetta.

“If something don’t change quick – we ain’t gonna be here,” said Isaksen.

Mt. Sinai is an 80-foot trawler that her owner gave away because she’s too expensive to fish and maintain. So now she’s being cannibalized for parts — dying a slow death — just like some fishermen say is happening to their industry.