By Clyde L. Mackenzie Jr.
During the 1990s, two local long-standing commercial fisheries came to an end in this area when the species being harvested became scarce. They were the fisheries for lobsters and softshell clams. In the 2000s, both fisheries remain extinct. The lobster fishery may have begun before the United States became a country and was a colony of Great Britain, because Peter Kalm’s book, Travels in North America, published in 1753, stated that lobsters in the New York City area were being taken in great numbers. The lobster fishery was continuous thereafter because it was mentioned next in an 1853 paper about the commercial fisheries in Raritan Bay. The harvests of the softshell clams likely date from pre-colonial times based upon the fact that their shells were found in local Indian middens.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, each lobsterman had a sailing boat docked in Belford or Highlands, and each fished about 150 pots. They strung groups of 25 to 35 pots along five or six lines. The lines, 1,800 to 1,000 feet long, were anchored in the deep areas of the bay. They laid the lines end-to-end, baited the pots with fluke skeletons or menhaden available from the pond net fishermen, and marked the ends with buoys made of saplings. Lobstermen put the pots in around the first of May. The pots were left in the same place during the entire season and were lifted every day by hand. Around mid-June, some lobstermen moved their pots out to ocean waters, in the vicinity of Ambrose light and tower. They were brought ashore in October and stacked on the docks during the winter. The pots used were similar to those used elsewhere along the East Coast. They were a little over three feet long, made of lathes coated with tar so they would repel boring animals, and they were shaped like a half-barrel.
By the 1970s, there were 28 lobster crews (two men per boat) sailing from Belford and Highlands. They set out a total of 42,000 pots, mostly in the ocean, an increase from the 4,000 they had set in the 1920s and 1930s. Each crew lifted groups of 300 each day every fourth day. Rock crabs, and a few ling, cunners, eel pout and blackfish, besides the market-sized and undersized lobsters, were in the pots when lifted. Market lobsters were saved and the remaining animals were tossed overboard to fall alive to the bottom. The lobsters were sold to fish markets and to sea food restaurants that had become numerous. During the 1990s, the lobsters became increasingly scarce and disappeared from this area. In the warming waters, they may have died from shell disease and they were not reproducing.
Softshell clams were dug with clam forks on the intertidal flats and churning hoes in the wading shallows of the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers and Raritan Bay. During the 1980s, 18 men participated in the fishery. The clams were a popular, tasty food in the local restaurants in Highlands and other local areas. In 1992, the clams died out during a heat wave that lasted about eight days. They have not repopulated the area.
Three types of fisheries remain in Raritan Bay: 1) The pound net fishery that catches menhaden, bluefish, and other types of fish; 2) the hard clam fishery which now has about 50 men who gather them from the muddy bottoms at depths of 18 to 24 feet below the water’s surface; and 3) a winter fishery in which blue crabs are dredged from the bottoms, also in waters of 18 to 24 feet.
In the cooler waters of Maine, lobsters and softshell clams are doing well. During the past 15 years, the state’s lobster landings have increased from 200,000 to about one million pounds a year, or by about 500 percent though the number of pots has not increased. Maine’s softshell clams have remained in high abundance on the intertidal flats, but the harvesting has to be halted periodically in most summers because noxious red tides bloom force state officials to prohibit digging until the blooms fade and the clams are safe to eat.
Fair Haven resident Clyde Mackenzie is affiliated with the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA on Sandy Hook. He is also the author of “The Fisheries of Raritan Bay” (Rutgers University Press, 1992).