LOWER TOWNSHIP — Some call them scup and some call them porgy. Right now, fishermen in the Port of Cape May are calling them a lifeline.
Scallops are the port’s No. 1 catch, but harvests of the popular shellfish have been cut 30 percent this year and 30 percent in 2014. Fishermen are getting some relief from an unlikely brownish-yellow fish.
Scup used to be the major winter fishery in the port, with one dock alone known to process close to 6 million pounds during the season. East Coast fishermen landed 49 million pounds in 1960, but by 1989 the catch bottomed out at 8.2 million pounds, and the fish were getting smaller, a sign of overfishing.
The first attempt to manage scup was in 1995, and the seasonal closings, minimum fish sizes, net restrictions and quotas have slowly brought stocks back so quotas are increasing.
Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, called it a classic example of how fisheries management is supposed to work.
“Stocks rebuilt because of the cuts taken to rebuild them. The industry bore that burden, and now they’re reaping the rewards,” DiDomenico said.
The market is a bit slower to respond. When fishermen stopped catching them, customers stopped buying them.
“The group that used to eat them passed away. They got scarce, and people forgot about them,” Capt. David Wiscott said.
What had been a major winter fishery in the port, then became an insignificant by-catch, is emerging again as a primary target for captains looking for something to catch during the winter. With regulators cutting scallop catches and the fluke season closed in New Jersey as of Saturday, scup are suddenly important again.
“I don’t know if you can make up for scallops monetarily. It’s not going to be the dollars, but fish are coming across the dock and it keeps people working,” DiDomenico said.
That was certainly true Friday, as dozens of workers at Cold Spring Fish & Supply, a.k.a. the Lobster House docks, unloaded 50,000 pounds of scup from the 95-foot Susan L., a boat that also catches scallops but was refitted with nets this winter to drag the ocean for fluke and scup.
Wiscott, the Susan L.’s captain, said his crew landed the trip limit of 50,000 pounds in just one day. With fuel close to $4 a gallon, and the Susan L. burning 2,000 gallons per day, it’s also important that they ran into the scup right off Cape May in about 30 fathoms of water.
As Wiscott moved 100-pound boxes of scup, iced and ready for markets in New York, Philadelphia and North Carolina, he talked about how good the fish are.
“I love them. They’re delicious,” Wiscott said.
The problem is that they can involve some cleaning. During the scup heyday, there were processing plants that dressed them for market, but the infrastructure is pretty much gone. Wiscott said consumers today don’t want to clean and scale a fish. They want to put them in a microwave.
Jeff Reichle of nearby Lund’s Fisheries, always sent some scup to market, even in the lean years, just to keep the fish alive with consumers. Reichle said as scup have returned he has even developed new markets, both domestically and internationally.
“It’s going to take some time to build the domestic market back up, but we have a good frozen export market. The price is rising, and that’s helping,” Reichle said.
The price paid to the fishermen ranges from 40 cents to $1.25 per pound, Reichle said. Those are low prices in the fishing business, but it is a high-volume fishery. Reichle said that when the trip limit was increased last year to 50,000 pounds, following a 66 percent increase in the East Coast commercial quota to 34.4 million pounds, it made economic sense to target them.
Reichle said there is one thing holding back the scup revival. Scup are often caught with fluke, but local boats can’t come in to unload scup if fluke are onboard and are out of season in New Jersey. He said that if they could unload scup in their home port, they would do that and then steam to Virginia or the Carolinas to unload the fluke, since their fluke seasons follow New Jersey’s.
He said that in the past two years, New Jersey fishermen landed almost 2.5 million pounds of scup, but he noted that the state lost more than 1 million pounds caught here but unloaded in other states where the fluke could be sold. Local fishing industry representatives have approached Gov. Chris Christie about the issue.
“It’s costing us a lot of money and a lot of jobs,” Reichle said.
The regulation is also creating unnecessary risk, he said, as boats sometimes steam in bad weather to ports in other states because they can’t dock in New Jersey with fish out of season even if there is no intention to unload them. The captain can ask New Jersey for “safe harbor,” but Reichle said they are sometimes hassled for that.
“Somebody’s going to die because of the stupidity in our state,” Reichle said.
Wiscott is just happy to have another fish to pursue while scallop stocks rebuild.
He said there are a lot of juvenile scallops that are getting larger. The cutbacks should end in 2015. Wiscott has been in the business long enough to see this before.
“Scalloping had a time period where it was down and fishing was good. Now, fishing is getting better,” he said.
For scup, or porgy, it could be about better marketing. Those aren’t exactly enticing monikers. Lobster House owner Keith Laudeman said it’s not exactly a “sexy name.”
“It’s a shame. It’s a really good fish. It’s white meat. It’s what Americans like,” he said.
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