Issue #3
June 10, 1997
Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
Trends in and methods of commercial fishing

Graph of total landingsAs the chart from the NMFS website [Link to NMFS statistics website]shows, East coast commercial landings have declined substantially since 1950. While due to a number of interrelated factors, the decline is in large part because all major East coast fisheries are now managed by state or federal agencies. While fisheries were for the most part “wide open” prior to passage of the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act in 1976, commercial harvesters in particular have been subjected to increasing controls on how, where and when they can fish and on what they can catch since then. There are also greater restrictions on who can fish. While the methods of commercial harvesting today - some of which are described below - have been in use for generations, management measures and an increasing awareness on the part of the fishermen that the ocean isn’t an endless source of fresh seafood have combined to make commercial harvesting much more selective than it was even a decade ago. The result is that fewer fish are being harvested, and they are being harvested in a much more sustainable manner.

Otter Trawling [Link to Otter trawling page]- Otter trawling is one of the oldest of New Jersey’s traditional net fisheries. A boat, ranging in size from 40 to 100 plus feet in length depending on the fishery, tows a funnel-shaped net through the water, herding the quarry into a closed-off bag, commonly called a “cod end.” After a tow of up to several hours the net is brought back to the boat and the catch, after being spilled from the cod end, is sorted, cleaned and packed on ice or in brine for the return to the dock. The sorting is necessary because in this and most other commercial fisheries non-targeted species are taken as well. These non-targeted species, collectively known as “by-catch” and occasionally caught in relatively high numbers, are avoided by fishermen whenever possible, representing wasted effort and added expense (and often no economic return). Major research initiatives to eliminate bycatch or to develop markets for it are ongoing in the otter trawl and other fisheries. Trawls can be operated on the bottom or higher up in the water column. Some of the primary species sought in the mid-Atlantic by trawlers are silver hake, fluke, flounder, mackerel, squid and weakfish.

Trawling is regulated through limiting entry into particular fisheries, closed areas and/or seasons and by mesh requirements in the whole net or in the cod end.

 Scallop dredging - The majority of scallops landed on the East coast are caught with scallop dredges, large steel constructions that are towed across the bottom, “scraping” up the scallops that are found there. The dredge consists of a rigid forward framework behind which is attached a bag made of steel rings. After a tow the dredge is hauled on board, the bag emptied and the catch sorted. Usually the scallops are shucked on board, the white muscles that consumers in the U.S. know as scallops being retained and the shell and other waste being returned to the ocean. However, a small but growing market exists for scallops “in-the-shell” and boats will sometimes keep part of the catch unshucked to supply it.

Scallop fishing is managed by entry limits, closed seasons and minimum size via the diameter of the rings in the bag.

Hydraulic Dredging [Link to Hydraulic Dredging page]- Hydraulic dredges are similar to the mechanical dredges used by scallopers with one modification. A manifold is mounted on the front of the dredge with nozzles directed downwards. Water from a pump on the dredge boat is ejected from the nozzles at high pressure, stirring up and “fluidizing” the sand in front of the dredge and allowing it to capture the clams that normally burrow in the bottom. The two mid-Atlantic species sought by hydraulic dredge boats are surf clams and ocean quohogs.

The surf clam and ocean quohog fisheries are two of the most “specialized” on the East coast, requiring vessels that aren’t suited for any other fisheries and providing a product that has virtually no demand when fresh and in the shell (these clams are used in clam strips, in chowders, and in the many products requiring minced or chopped clams). One of the most valuable cash crops harvested from New Jersey’s waters, surf clams and ocean quohogs are the primary ingredient in canned and frozen clam products sold worldwide.

The surf clam/ocean quohog fisheries are managed through limits on the number of boats allowed to participate, gear restrictions and strict quotas.

Longlining [Link to longlining page]- This is a hook and line fishery in which baited hooks are suspended at intervals from a horizontal “long line” which is hauled in after a set period of time. The pelagic longline boats based in New Jersey harvest tunas and swordfish in the upper part of the water column and fish anywhere on our side of the North Atlantic. The boats in the directed (meaning they fish exclusively for) shark fishery also use longlines on the surface, generally closer in. Tilefish longline boats set their gear on the bottom in the deeper waters of the continental shelf. Longline caught fish are among the highest quality available due to the one-at-a-time handling characterizing the fishery.

The longline fisheries are managed through a variety of measures, primarily quotas, seasonal closures and limits on the number of boats allowed to participate and, with several other fisheries, participate in official on-board observer programs.

 Gill netting [Link to gill netting page]- Sometimes confused with the huge open-ocean drift gillnets that were indicted as indiscriminate killers of marine life several years back (and subsequently banned in most waters), the inshore gillnetting fleet in New Jersey is characterized by smaller boats making one day trips and landing limited amounts of high quality products like weakfish, monkfish, shad and bluefish. Gillnets are vertical panels of netting, suspended either at or under the surface, that entangle the fish that swim into them. The fishermen periodically haul the nets into the boat, removing the fish and returning the nets to the water to continue fishing. The gillnet fishermen being familiar with the migratory patterns of the fish the are seeking, this is a “clean” fishery.

Gillnet fisheries are managed through limited entry, closed seasons, and net length and mesh restrictions.

Trap and pot fisheries [Link to trap and pot fishing page]- Several bottom-dwelling fish and shellfish species are harvested in wooden or wire traps in New Jersey’s waters. Whether lobsters, crabs, whelks, sea bass or tautog are the quarry, the traps work the same way. A large, funnel-shaped opening allows the catch into the trap - either seeking bait or shelter - but prevents it from getting back out. The traps range in size from smaller crab pots used by baymen in New Jersey’s estuaries to the large offshore lobster pots that are set in several hundreds of feet of water offshore. Trap caught fish and shellfish are of the highest quality, still alive when landed and often kept alive until bought by the consumer.

The trap fishery is regulated through seasonal and area closures and through the use of escape vents allowing immature fish or shellfish to escape. To avoid so-called ghost fishing, where a trap that is unavoidably lost by a fisherman lays on the bottom and continues to trap fish or shellfish, traps must now have doors which automatically open after being submerged for a certain time.

New Jersey FishNet is supported by the Cape May Seafood Producer’s Association, The Family and Friends of Commercial Fishermen, the Fishermen’s Dock Cooperative, Lund’s Fishery, the National Fisheries Institute and Viking Village Dock