Rising scallop prices helped boost the value of last year’s fish harvest to more than $100 million, making the Port of Cape May the second-largest commercial port on the East Coast and fifth-largest in the country.
The Port of Cape May, which includes docks in Lower Township and Wildwood but none actually in Cape May, took in $103 million last year.
That was up from $81 million in 2010 in spite of the fact that the amount of fish brought to port declined from 43 million pounds to 40 million pounds. Those numbers kept the port at No. 2 on the East Coast behind New Bedford, Mass., and moved it up from No. 7 in the nation to No. 5, according to a report from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Sea scallops are the primary catch locally, and they rose in value last year from an average price of $7.92 per pound to $9.89 per pound. That is the price paid to the fishing vessels, but the value of the catch rises at least sixfold as the seafood makes its way to wholesalers, retailers and consumers, the fisheries service said.
The good news for the port was tempered somewhat by the reason behind the price increase.
Peter Hughes, of Atlantic Capes Fisheries on Ocean Drive, said the tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 began a series of events that boosted the price for the shellfish in America.
There is also concern that scallop harvest quotas will be cut next year.
Hughes said China and Japan both produce scallops in aquaculture operations. The tsunami wiped out Japanese scallop operations, and after that most of the Chinese scallops went to Japan instead of to America. Hughes noted the same tsunami created enough damage in Peru to wipe out scallop aquaculture operations there, too.
Keith Laudeman, of Cold Spring Fish & Supply, also known as the Lobster House docks, said the boost is leading to a lot of investment in the industry. He purchased a new, 94-foot scallop boat.
The 2011 report by the fisheries service listed scallops as the third-most valuable catch nationally, behind crabs and salmon. The East Coast catch was 59.1 million pounds worth $585 million in 2011, up from $455 million a year before. The catch was up only by nearly 3 percent, but the value rose by more than 28 percent.
New Jersey landed the second-highest amount of scallops behind Massachusetts.
The overall fish harvest is up statewide from 161.8 million pounds worth $178 million in 2010 to 175.5 million pounds worth $212 million in 2011.
The fisheries service report showed progress in several other New Jersey ports. Long Beach Island, including the Barnegat Light fishing village, saw the value of its catch rise from $26 million to $34 million and was rated the 34th largest port in the country. It was No. 33 last year.
“Our landings were down. It was really the prices,” said Ernie Panecek, who manages the Viking Village docks in Barnegat Light.
The Port of Point Pleasant also experienced a boost from $23 million to $27 million in spite of its catch dropping from 21 million pounds to 15 million pounds. Point Pleasant ranked No. 41 in the nation, down from No. 37 last year.
Atlantic City, which primarily lands surf clams and ocean quahogs, dropped out of the top 50 rankings by seafood value. It was No. 37 in 2009 and No. 49 last year, but clam beds continue moving north due to warmer ocean waters. The port still caught 23 million pounds in 2011, and New Jersey still led the nation in surf clam and quahog catches.
The figures show the harvest is dropping locally and rising in states such as Massachusetts and Maine.
Squid prices also rose, and that helped Lund’s Fisheries on Ocean Drive, which specializes in underutilized species. Squid rose from 29 cents per pound to 33 cents per pound. New Jersey, mainly due to Lund’s, had a squid harvest of 22.6 million pounds, second in the nation only to California, where Lund’s also has operations.
Warmer ocean waters, which have driven the cod out of New England waters, according to a new scientific report, remain the industry’s largest concern, as some species are moving north. Southern species, however, may be moving in. Gregory DiDomenico, of the Garden State Seafood Association, said grouper, spot, croaker and other southern species are starting to show up as far north as New York, and he said “sharks are everywhere.”
“Sharks are inshore and offshore. People are reporting houndfish all over the place. It’s pretty neat,” DiDomenico said.
Hughes said his son recently caught two pompano in the surf at Stone Harbor, while two other Southern fish, carr and barracuda, have been seen in the waters near Atlantic Capes Fisheries.
The question is whether enough Southern fish will come to allow commercial harvests, especially since there is discussion about cutting back scallop catches as much as 25 percent next year. There are a lot of juvenile scallops off the Mid-Atlantic, but they are not at harvest size yet. Hughes said he hopes warmer water will increase the growth rates of scallops.
“Water temperature is up 3 to 4 degrees, and we don’t know what it will do to scallops. Maybe they will grow out in two years rather than three,” Hughes said.
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