LOWER TOWNSHIP — Commercial fishermen have a reputation for adapting to changing regulations and economic conditions.
Sea Gear Marine Supply, which equips fishing boats from North Carolina to Massachusetts, has to be equally nimble.
So if the National Marine Fisheries Service suddenly outlaws a specific type of fishing net, the supply house will try to sell its inventory to schools as batting-cage backstops, co-owner Sean Barto said.
“Adapt or die,” he said.
Sea Gear, located on Cape May Harbor across the street from the Lobster House, does the bulk of its business with commercial fishermen, selling everything needed to equip and maintain boats from rope to steel cable to the spare hardware most boats keep aboard.
But Barto, 31, of Lower Township, said his business has provided materials to theater staging companies, transportation firms and building contractors.
Barto learned from his father, Chuck Barto, who opened the business in 1986 and still runs it. His late grandfather, Gus Genovese, was a purse-seine fisherman who died of a heart attack at sea with a load of tuna aboard.
The store equips fishermen for the rigors of a life at sea, with a large inventory of boots, gloves, sweatshirts and foul-weather gear. The store sells Guy Cotten and Grundens rain gear and XtraTuf boots with soles designed to be slip-resistant on deck.
“These guys work 18 hours a day. They want to be comfortable,” he said.
The store also has work clothes from jeans to jackets and sweatshirts.
Barto said his store’s location at the Port of Cape May is convenient for fishermen who want to see their gear firsthand before buying. They keep a ready inventory to get boats back on the water faster, he said.
Speed is especially important in an industry with tight controls over fishing days, said Gregory DiDomenico, spokesman for the Garden State Seafood Association.
“It’s all about turnaround time,” he said. “When you have a breakdown or need a part or some essential piece of equipment, the advantage of running down the road and getting back out fishing makes you profitable. That’s the bottom line.”
In a separate building, the store keeps its heavy-duty cable and a small machine shop where employees custom-make fishing tackle.
“It’s basically a tackle shop for commercial fishermen,” he said. “We offer heavy-duty stuff and keep more inventory in stock than many manufacturers do.”
Cape May boasts the East Coast’s second-most-lucrative fishing industry behind New Bedford, Mass., driven largely by demand for sea scallops.
“Scalloping has been the savior of the local fishing industry,” he said. “But next year could be a different story. They’re expected to cut the quotas.”
The Port of Cape May landed the second most scallops on the East Coast behind Massachusetts last year at 59 million pounds valued at $585 million, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The catch was up 3 percent in volume but 28 percent in price.
Sea Gear’s staff stays on top of industry news so it can anticipate the needs of its customers, Barto said. Its success is tied directly to that of the commercial-fishing industry.
“The economy hasn’t fazed us like other industries, such as housing that has gone downhill. We’re more subject to government regulations,” he said.
When fishing boats on the East Coast spend fewer days at sea, Sea Gear sells less equipment, he said.
“If they regulated banking as closely as they regulate fishing, we’d have an overabundance of money to lend out,” he said.
Still, the downturn in the economy dramatically affected the recreational boating industry. Barto said he saw that firsthand at his store.
“You would have a guy with a 70-foot Viking boat ask how much a fitting was,” he said. “People ask more questions now about prices. They want to know what they’re spending. Nobody has been totally unaffected by the economy.”
The store has sought to open more stores in other fishing ports on the East Coast for five years, but several of the deals fell through. The shop keeps a supply warehouse in North Cape May.
Lately, it has been using the Internet to diversify its marketing beyond fishing ports.
“I’m trying to reach more than just fishermen. We can do all kinds of industrial rigging and reach people in the Midwest,” he said.
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