Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Watermen and Baymen

“Every true clamdigger knows that it's pronounced Stri-PED bass, not Striped Bass, just like the river is pronounced For-KED, not forked.” - A relative of mine forty years ago.

"I've never seen that before." - That same relative after I knocked over the bucket containing our afternoon's perch catch allowing the fish to escape back into the Forked River.

* * * 

Up until a few years ago you could drop into Hulse’s general store almost any winter’s evening, ‘way up the sheltered river, and listen to deep-sea thrillers that would make you seasick – for the Metedeconker begins his tale where Captain Voss leaves off. - Yachting Magazine feature "Old Emma Comes to Barnegat" by F. Slade Dale, June 1933.

The landscape for those who work those same waters for their livelihoods has changed dramatically since the days Hulse’s General Store (located on what is now Mantoloking Road in the Adamston section of Brick Township) was the focal point of life along the northern Barnegat Bay. 

Recently, a marina owner in Brick Township allowed a local relief agency to store their excess donated dry goods in the new steel building at his marina. The building was completed except power had not been turned on yet – a task slowed by Hurricane Sandy – but the relief agency and the marina were simply storing relief supplies until they could be distributed. Township inspectors ruled this an illegal activity and the marina owner received a $2,000 fine for storing the donated goods without a certificate of occupancy. Things have indeed changed.

From the time the Delaware Indians lived here, Barnegat Bay has offered sustenance to the people who inhabit its shores. Like the indigenous peoples before them, European settlers survived on the fish, clams, waterfowl and vegetation the bay provided. As the population of  New York and New Jersey grew in the middle to latter part of the 19th Century, these “baymen” began to supplement their subsistence by harvesting the natural bounty of the bay commercially. 

Through the 19th and for the first three quarters of the 20th Centuries, the culture of the bayman ruled the waters of the Barnegat. After the Garden State Parkway was completed in 1957 the region began to change as middle-class flight from the cities of northern New Jersey and New York took hold of the areas surrounding the bay, especially in the north near the Metedeconk and Toms River estuaries. The same can be said for the Manasquan and Shark Rivers, in southern Monmouth County.

While sportsmen were fixtures in the summer, the baymen owned the waters for the entire year. Those of us who grew up in the area knew locals whose livelihoods depended on the bay, and the culture of the bayman was an ever-present part of our childhoods. Poles holding fyke nets and floats marking clam beds were common sights to the would-be Tom Sawyers (author included) growing up around the bay. Sportsmen who fished and sailed the waters were respectful of the nets and floats knowing that a man was feeding his family from the catch they provided. In 1979, there were 110 clammers working the bay out of Parkertown and just a handful of sportsmen. In 2012, there were 6 baymen actively working the Barnegat and surrounding waters.

Photo Courtesy Washington University

Today, it is not uncommon for sportsmen to cut the poles holding commercial fyke nets in retaliation for the perceived competition for dwindling resources the commercial fisherman represents. Fyke nets are generally set for eels, which sportsmen generally don't fish for, and commercial fishermen are not allowed to fish for Striped Bass - the fish most sought after by sportsmen, so the perceived threat by sportsmen is completely without merit. The financial loss of having to replace lost or damaged gear is compounded by the loss of income from the unharvested catch.

As if the change in the region hasn't been enough to eradicate a way of life, Hurricane Sandy may have dealt the final blow to commercial fishing in the region.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with the only commercial net fisherman still working the waters of the Shark River about the obstacles Hurricane Sandy threw in front of the already difficult lives of commercial baymen along the Jersey Shore. Jimmy Jenks is based in Brick and has been working the waters of the northern Barnegat Bay and Shark River all of his life. His family moved to the Brick area in the early 1950s, and like his father before him, Jimmy has carried on the traditions of the baymen and watermen who have worked this area for 150 years.

Jenks lost $25,000 worth of gear in Hurricane Sandy, and although he is eligible to apply for a 6% loan to help him recover his business, FEMA requires receipts for every piece of equipment he lost. Since commercial fisherman work their gear for years and years, this is all but an impossibility. The lack of receipts is not the only issue as FEMA has given Jenks the wrong paperwork twice  in his efforts to make a claim for his losses.

A commercial fisherman's boat waits in the ice of the
Manasquan River for warmer weather and a chance
to find out what the future holds for its owner.
© 2013 Jack Sharkey

Jenks’ two main crops are crabs and eels. Supplying fresh caught eels to the wholesale fish markets in New York and surrounding areas for the Christmas season is the core of Jenks’ income and this year he was unable to work the river because of the amount of debris in the water in the aftermath of Sandy. He has attempted to dredge for crabs, another winter income provider, but this year there are no crabs to be found.

The State of New Jersey has decided it is not willing to protect the incomes of these men who provide so much in the way of harvest and culture, opting instead to cater to the needs of sportsmen. While it is true that there are only a few men working the waters of a dying bay, we should mourn the loss just the same.

One possible source of income for these men who know our waters like we know our own backyards is to exploit their expertise in the search and salvage of the over 1,000 vessels that are known to be unaccounted for since the storm. Recovery and salvage efforts are currently underway using out-of-state contractors and as of this writing, our baymen have been completely shut out by the those contractors.

While the jetskiers and sport fishermen who use the same waters as Jenks might find his presence – as well as the other commercial fishermen in the area – a nuisance, these men are farmers who are carrying on a tradition and a way of life that existed long before the waters of this area of New Jersey became a leisure haven for the newly relocated. With only six men still working the waters full-time it won’t be long before a treasured way of life in our area is lost to the history books forever. 

Hurricane Sandy has only sped up the inevitable.

A commercial fisherman stands watch over recovery efforts at Loughran Point on the Manasquan Inlet.
© 2013 Jack Sharkey

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