A Hard-Shell Life

The Delaware Bay seafood industry’s once-bustling days are long gone, but hardy men still work the water with grit and dedication.

Photographs and text by Jay Fleming
From the September 2018 issue

Small coastal towns like Little Creek, Port Mahon and Bowers Beach were built upon the Delaware Bay seafood industry that flourished amid bountiful oyster harvests in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

During that time, on the northern shore of the bay, New Jersey towns such as Bivalve, Money Island and Port Norris were home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country — their wealth derived from the humble oyster. Throughout the East Coast and Midwest, oysters from Delaware Bay were in high demand. The fishery, which seemed boundless back then, would later nearly collapse from diseases — MSX and Dermo — and decades of unregulated harvests.

The diminishing number of workboats and seafood processors along the bay’s shores mirrored the decline of the oyster industry. Watermen and those who processed their catch were forced to either abandon the business or diversify into different fisheries. Improvements in refrigeration and globalization of the seafood industry in the latter half of the 20th century helped the survivors serve markets farther afield. The Delaware Bay fisheries that exist now must continually adapt to ever tightening regulations, fluctuations in product availability, and changes in the marketplace.

After spending five years photographing the Chesapeake Bay’s commercial fisheries for my book “Working the Water,”

I naturally became intrigued by those of Delaware Bay. The environmental and regulatory differences in the two bodies of water create, not surprisingly, a completely different experience for an observer. Separated by the Delmarva Peninsula, watermen on both bays regularly do business together. The network of watermen I had connected with for my work on the Chesa­peake Bay gave me access to their counterparts on the Delaware Bay. I divided this photography essay into the different fisheries in which watermen presently work.

Eastern Oyster

Delaware’s wild oyster season opens in April, after the Chesapeake’s season closes, and ends when the state’s quota — as determined by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control — is reached. In Delaware Bay, the most common method of harvest is power dredging, in which a rake-like device is dragged over oyster beds behind a workboat. Each oyster license allows the harvesting of a limited number of the bivalves per season. (Watermen working private oyster grounds are subject to fewer restrictions.) Delaware oysters are sold to two different markets: shucking houses, where they are opened and the meat is placed into pint, quart and gallon containers; and to restaurants and retailers by the box or bag.

Blue Crab

Unlike Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay is open to crab dredging, making crabbing nearly a year-round operation for Delaware watermen. Crab dredging season opens in December and runs thru March. Boats pull a long-toothed apparatus that digs into the sandy or muddy bottom where the crustaceans hibernate for the winter. Because blue crabs build up fat reserves in the fall to help them survive the annual hibernation, dredged crabs are typically “heavy” and desirable. These crabs are marketed almost exclusively in New Jersey and New York. There is no catch limit for dredged crabs, though egg-bearing females and immature females must be released. When dredging season ends, there is a short gap before the start of “crab pot” season, when crabbers use baited cage-like traps to lure their catch. Crabs caught this way during the late spring, summer and fall supply the “basket market” for sale at crab houses and restaurants throughout the region and beyond; mature non-egg-bearing females, which are legal to harvest, are sold to picking houses on the shores of the Chesapeake where the meat is packaged for sale.  

Whelk

Channeled and knobbed whelk, locally known as “conch” or “snails,” are caught by watermen using baited pots and are also caught by crab dredgers. Watermen targeting whelk with pots work near the mouth of the bay in the fall and spring. Conch will migrate offshore into the Atlantic as inshore water temperatures cool. Horseshoe crab meat is the primary bait used in this fishery. Both channeled and knobbed whelk are subject to a 6-inch minimum size limit but there is no daily catch limit. Whelks in the shell are sent to processing plants where the meat is extracted and shipped to Asian markets.

Rockfish (Striped Bass)

Along with other states in the Mid-Atlantic region, Delaware has adopted the Individual Transferable Quota system for “stripers.” Each waterman with a rockfish permit is allocated a catch quota, which is a percentage of Delaware’s quota as determined by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Watermen can buy and sell individual quotas for a particular year if they want to invest more in the fishery or if they don’t plan on participating. The primary methods of harvest in Delaware are gill net along with hook and line. New Jersey does not allow commercial harvest of stripers.

Horseshoe Crab

Delaware Bay has one of the highest populations of horseshoe crabs in the world. Until the 1950s, when demand dropped, millions of them were harvested from the bay to supplement livestock feed and for use in the fertilizer industry. With the expansion of the American eel and whelk fisheries in the 1990s, demand for these crabs as bait increased. Simultaneously there was an increase in demand for horseshoe crab blood for biomedical purposes, and the harvest of crabs again climbed into the millions. However, the increased pressure on the fishery, combined with environmentalists’ concerns, forced regulators to place restrictions on the harvest. The current quota for Delaware’s harvest is around 150,000 males (females must be released). Watermen can catch horseshoe crabs by using dredges and by picking them up on the beach.

 

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