SEA ISLE CITY — A century ago, the Italian immigrants who created a fishing village on this island were not always given the best place to live.
“They sent us to the back bay, the marshes. It was nothing but shacks and shanties and we had to make something of where they sent us to,” said Mike Monichetti, the owner of Mike’s Seafood and Dock Restaurant.
The fishing section known as “Fish Alley” is full of success stories that often began in Italy, included a short stop at Ellis Island and followed three or four generations of Italian-Americans making a living off the sea. Monichetti’s grandparents Lodovico and Rosina Monichetti arrived here via Ellis Island in 1911, and eventually bought the land for their restaurant for $500.
Their grandson is celebrating the family’s 100th year in business this year.
“We do over 2,000 diners a night on average,” Monichetti said. “People are buying fish off me who bought fish off my grandfather and grandmother.”
The port has faced challenges over the decades, including coastal storms that decimated the island, strict fishing regulations and condominium development that squeezed Fish Alley into a smaller and smaller area.
But now, with help from the governing body, Fish Alley is being improved and promoted. There is a new welcome sign at the entrance and a new boardwalk along the water’s edge. A granite monument and placards tell the tale of the alley’s development as a fishing port.
There is also an annual festival now in its fourth year, Sea Isle City Harborfest, set for the first Saturday in October to promote the area as a seaport. It was Monichetti’s idea.
“I wanted to promote our working harbor and the food it supplies and the jobs it supplies. This is a working seaport with boats ranging from 18 feet to 68 feet,” Monichetti said.
One thing that spurred Monichetti to action is the condominium development that had taken over the 43rd Place Canal and one side of the 42nd Place Canal, where the commercial fishing industry traditionally operated. Monichetti said similar development has compromised fishing operations at other seaports, including Gardner’s Basin in Atlantic City and Ottens Harbor in Wildwood.
“The whole thing started with me taking a look at Gardner’s Basin. They’re only allowed to unload (the boats) a few hours a day. I didn’t want to see that happen here,” Monichetti said.
Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio said the city was very receptive and incorporated the fish docks into the campaign to promote the town “from beach to bay.”
“Fish Alley has a rich history from back when we were a small fishing community. Many of the people who recently moved here did not know this history. New residents didn’t even know the nickname of that area as Fish Alley,” Desiderio said.
Much of that history has included the Conti family. Four generations have worked in the fishing business on the 42nd Place Canal. The family business includes four fishing boats, a seafood restaurant called Carmen’s, the bait and tackle shop Two Chums, and a boat rental business.
“We’ll cook it for you, we’ll catch it for you, or we’ll let you go catch it,” Carmen Conti explained.
Conti spoke as he unloaded 1,000 pounds of fresh sea bass, lobster, cod and ling from his boat. He had just come in from fishing 15 miles offshore with deckhand Dave Falcone. He also brought his 7-year-old son Carmen Conti, Jr. on one of the boy’s first fishing trips.
“My son is the fourth generation. Hopefully the future is bright, as long as the fishing regulations don’t hurt us that much,” Conti said. “I want him to go to college, but if he decided to fish I wouldn’t be against that. It’s a tough life. When fishing is good, it’s good, but when it’s bad, it’s real bad.”
A century ago many of the fish were caught in pound nets. The men would plant poles offshore and use nets to funnel the fish to what was called “the pocket.” As boats and engines improved, the fishermen began dragging a net behind the boats. The boats were dubbed draggers.
“You can move the net. That’s why they built the draggers,” said Falcone, who has been fishing here for 35 years.
Some built their own vessels. Conti’s father, 82-year-old Carmen Conti, is building his 15th boat. He built the first fiberglass boat in the area in 1949.
“It’s going to be my last one,” he said. “I’ll use it to hand-line flounders in the back bays and Delaware Bay. I’m one of the last hand-lining fishermen left.”
Conti said his father Aneillo came to America on a sailing schooner in 1899 at the age of 10 and got a job at the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. His father kept unloading boxes of fish from a place called Sea Isle City. Finally, in 1930, he decided to go to Sea Isle City to “see where all this fish was coming from.” He never left.
As a child, Conti said he was constantly in trouble with the truant officer because all he wanted to do was go fishing.
“The truant officer came to my house and said ‘If you go to school until you’re 14 you can quit.’ At 14 I said, ‘Pop, I’m going fishing.’ He said ‘No, you’re going to learn to fix engines first and then you can start,’” Conti recalled.
Back in the 1930s, fishermen here were using gasoline-powered car engines to run small wooden boats, usually between 25 and 30 feet long, out to the fishing grounds. Conti’s training with a mechanic served him well over the years.
There are about 15 commercial fishing boats in the port. Conti said there were more boats in the 1930s, but they were smaller.
“The lagoons were all full of fishing boats. We had 8 to 10 draggers, 12 to 14 pot boats and four or five sets of fish pounds. The 43rd Place Canal was all fish houses,” Conti said.
Most of the canal is now condos, although a large seafood restaurant has survived. Fish Alley is mostly on the 42nd Place Canal nowadays, which even sports an original 1910 fish house, now the Lobster Loft Restaurant.
The recession and a slow housing market have helped reduce the condominium pressure, said Bob Burcaw Sr., 76, who fishes out of the 42nd Place Canal alongside his sons Robbie and Eric. Burcaw said laws need to be passed to protect the fishing docks from development pressure.
“You see what happened in Atlantic City at Gardner’s Basin. It’s wrong. If you buy a condo at a fish dock, you have no right to complain,” Burcaw said.
Burcaw started as a party-boat captain in 1954 at the age of 20. He bought his dock here in 1960. Five years later, he started fishing commercially for tilefish. His two sons and his 19-year-old grandson Eric have their own boats here. Burcaw gave his boys the property. He fishes for king mackerel in Florida most of the year now.
“I come up here for four months to harass the boys,” Burcaw joked.
A placard on the new boardwalk along the water tells the history of the fishing village. It states: “Some commercial fishing continues today.”
If the ancestors of the town’s original fishermen have their way, it will continue for a long time to come.
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