SEA ISLE CITY — Carmen Conti has been catching flounder for more than 70 years off these shores using an old-school method of pulling in the lines by hand.
That, apparently, was his big mistake.
Conti, 83, who began fishing here with his late father, Aneillo, in the 1930s, found out recently his fishing method is not allowed without a special license. He was fined $5,000 by the state and told he needs a license that he doesn’t possess, and probably cannot get.
Conti said state conservation officers told him he can catch flounder with a net but can’t continue using lines and fishing hooks off his 42-foot Rufus, a boat that bears the pet name for his wife, Ruthie.
“I’ve been doing this since before I went to grade school,” Conti said. “I don’t like to work the nets. I’m too old for that. I have two bad rotor (rotator) cuffs and can’t do anything over my head. I can’t even change a light bulb anymore.”
Conti, who fishes for his family’s seafood restaurant, Carmen’s, here in Fish Alley, has found a friend in state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic. Van Drew appealed to the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council during a meeting Thursday afternoon at the Atlantic County Library in Galloway Township.
“We’re lucky to live until we’re 70. Carmen Conti has been fishing for 70 years. He’s the American story. Somebody who has worked hard and pushed and made his way over great odds. Fishing is not easy,” Van Drew said.
Van Drew said the fishing method is actually one of the better ones for the environment. Conti said he simply puts about eight fishing lines over the side of the boat, usually fishing within 10 miles of shore in about 35 feet of water, and uses circle hooks because live fish are worth more than dead fish in the fresh sushi market. Conti said he remembers getting paid less than 1 cent per pound for flounder and now he can receive as much as $6 a pound.
“I’ve been doing this since the 1930s. I was just a young kid. We had no choice if you wanted to eat,” Conti told the council.
Van Drew said there are licenses to do what Conti does, but apparently there are none available right now. He wants the council, which regulates marine fisheries in the state, to try and work something out with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, which issues such licenses.
“He was told he needs a permit but these permits are not available. He’s fished the ocean for many, many years. Is there some way he could be grandfathered? Please do due diligence and look into it. I’d appreciate that,” Van Drew said.
Councilman Dick Herb looked over some of the paperwork Conti gave him.
“Can we take a look and get to the bottom of this and report back to the senator?” Herb asked the council.
Council members supported the idea.
“We’ll get back to you on this, senator,” Herb told Van Drew.
After the meeting, Van Drew said he would help Conti navigate through the bureaucracy.
“After fishing this long, he deserves better,” Van Drew said.
David Kielmeier, a friend of Conti’s who came to the council meeting, said Conti has a number of fishing permits. He may have started fishing before such permits even existed, but Conti has tried to keep current and has licenses to catch flounder with a gillnet. Kielmeier said there are only five or six people in the state with permits to catch flounder with hook-and-line gear.
The Conti family was one of several Italian families that helped create Fish Alley, a vibrant fishing community in the canals just over the bridge into Sea Isle. Conti said as a child he was in constant trouble with a truant officer because he was always out fishing. He made a deal with the truant officer to stay in school until he was 14, but when he reached that age his father made him learn how to fix engines before going fishing full-time. Back then, the fishermen here all used gasoline-powered car engines to run small wooden boats to get to offshore fishing grounds.
Conti said he learned about engines and also learned how to build boats, constructing the first fiberglass and first aluminum boats in the region. But he never stopped fishing and he taught his son, Carmen Conti Jr., how to fish.
“I took him out when he was 3,” Conti said.
The family now has four fishing boats, the seafood restaurant, a bait & tackle shop and a boat rental business at Fish Alley. While most fishermen here evolved to use more high-tech methods to catch fish, Conti stuck pretty much with what he knew.
“I was the first to do this,” Conti said.
Conti’s fishing method is arguably better for the environment than towing a net or using hooks that kill undersized fish that must be thrown back.
“It’s not a very invasive, aggressive, anti-environmental way of fishing,” Van Drew said.
Contact Richard Degener: