Cape fishermen chase scallops despite risks, trade-offs

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Scallops caught by boats based in southern Cape May County may end up on your plate at a local restaurant, or in the frozen-foods section of a Wal-Mart or Costco, or even in foreign countries such as France.

But before the delicious white mollusks end up frozen in a chain store or fresh at a restaurant, commercial fishermen have to scrape them from the bottom of the ocean floor.

It’s a fairly lucrative business that fuels a commercial fishing industry worth tens of millions of dollars each year. But the job takes an emotional toll on the fishermen who must leave their families for up to two weeks at a time to go to sea.

Tom McNulty Jr.’s wife, Mandy, gave birth Feb. 16 to a daughter. Zoe McNulty was born at 7 pounds, 12 ounces, the proud father announced recently. But with scallop season quickly approaching, he’s going to have to leave them to go make a living.

“I’m not looking forward to that day when I have to leave,” said McNulty, 35, of Middle Township, who captains two scallop boats and also has a 6-year-old son. “You can’t wait to come back and see your family.”

“It’s hard on your family,” he added. “You miss birthdays. You miss graduations.”

Mandy McNulty, 32, says this year it will be harder for her husband to leave because of the new baby. She said the family sometimes keeps count on a chalkboard of the days until her husband rolls back into the docks.

Being married to a commercial fisherman isn’t the easiest job. In addition to taking care of the family, you have to try not to worry about what’s going on at sea, she said.

“You definitely have to be very independent and strong,” Mandy McNulty said. “I would drive myself literally insane if I constantly worried about him.”

David Wiscott, captain of the Susan L fishing boat, said his wife compares it to being married to a member of the military.

“It takes a very special woman to be married to a fisherman,” said the 59-year-old from Lower Township.

Wiscott, who remembers making his first commercial trip the same year Elvis Presley died, in 1977, didn’t get to see his youngest son until 10 days after his wife gave birth.

Now, Wiscott’s four adult sons, including the youngest, are involved in the commercial fishing industry. And, with statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing scallop prices up 87 percent from 2009 to 2015, the future is looking bright.

In 2015, the combined port of Cape May and Wildwood brought in $71.6 million, making it the ninth biggest port in the nation and second on the East Coast in terms of dollars, according to the most recent NOAA data.

It wasn’t always so profitable.

Erling Berg, 78, of Cape May, remembers selling scallops for 28 cents a pound when he entered the business in the 1950s.

“There was a time when you could barely give them away,” said Berg, who took his last commercial fishing trip about 25 years ago. “I never thought I’d see a day when it would evolve to where it is now.”

In fact, the market was so poor that Berg said he and other fishermen used part of their proceeds from fishing to buy advertisements in a popular magazine promoting scallops as a food source.

Perhaps the awareness campaign paid off. Today, scallops are sought after by seafood-lovers and prices range from $10 to $17 a pound, according to the most recent NOAA trends.

“Being mainly in the scallop business, we had a good season,” said Keith Laudeman, president of Cold Spring Fish and Supply Co., a major seafood supply company that includes the adjoining Lobster House restaurant.

Laudeman is the second link in the chain, after Wiscott, McNulty and other fishermen.

He’s a wholesaler who buys scallops, flounder, squid, sea bass and other species, and sells to buyers in New York and Philadelphia who either sell it whole or process it. A lot of the scallops also go to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where processors size and freeze them, Laudeman added.

However, before the scallops are shipped off, commercial fishermen have to retrieve them, which is neither an easy nor cheap endeavor.

Preparing for a trip includes fixing the gear from the previous trip, changing the boat’s oil and stocking up on 25 to 30 tons of ice, 16,000 gallons of fuel and $3,500 in groceries, McNulty said.

“These are our moneymakers, so we have to take care of them,” he said, referring to his two scallop boats.

McNulty estimates he puts in $30,000 a trip before the boat leaves the dock. He’s responsible for covering that amount and making a profit for the six other members of his crew.

“That’s where the stress comes for me up here,” said McNulty, speaking from the bridge of one of his boats.

During a scallop trip, Wiscott said the Susan L will stay 30 to 60 miles offshore and travel up and down the coast between Virginia and the Canada-U.S. border.

McNulty said he works 16 hours a day on the boat, while his crew members usually work 12. He said it takes a “lot of mental toughness” to stand for that long shucking scallops.

“If you get five hours of sleep, you’re doing pretty good,” he added. “We’re not here to hang out. We’re out here to work and make money.”

Wiscott said, for a captain, it’s really a 24-hour job. If someone gets hurt or the equipment gets messed up, crew members come knocking at his door.

“It’s the hardest job you’ve ever done in your life,” he said. “It’s very physically demanding.”

It can be dangerous, too, especially during storms. Though he didn’t want to elaborate, McNulty said he’s been on two boats that sunk, and Wiscott said he’s been out in storms when other fishing vessels sank or disappeared.

“I’ve been in a few storms I wish I was never in,” Wiscott said. “Today, we don’t work that kind of weather because of the regulations” on how many days a year you can fish for scallops (about 60 days based on time and poundage regulations, according to Wiscott).

In 2015, 23 people died in fishing and fishing-related industries, corresponding to a fatality rate of 54.8 per 100,000 full-time workers — second only to logging — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The fatality rate across all industries was 3.4.

“I can’t be naive and say that statistic is bullcrap,” McNulty said, acknowledging the danger. “We do everything in our power to make it as safe as we can.”

And, if it all goes right, a scallop trip can pay off.

A good 10-day trip in the summer, Wiscott said, will net him and his crew 30,000 pounds of scallops, which he can sell to Laudeman for the going rate.

“Right now, it’s on the positive side,” Wiscott added. “There were some years we didn’t make very much money.”

The money might be good, but commercial fishermen still need to have a passion for what they’re doing, according to Wiscott and McNulty.

Wiscott started in the scallop industry as a mate on Berg’s boat in the 1970s. Even now, with a bad back from decades on the water, Wiscott said he still looks forward to embarking on another trip.

“You got to love your job,” he said. “I got 40 years, and I still love doing it.”

McNulty knew he wanted to be a fisherman from a young age, after spending his childhood on his family’s clam boats.

“When I finished high school, I started going out on boats more seriously,” he said “And I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

“If I didn’t have this and I had to bang nails or something, I’d be lost,” McNulty added.

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