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Tide turned deadly in '09 for fishers off N.J.

Philadelphia Daily News
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Hundreds of eyes will scan menus in high-priced Center City eateries tonight. In the suburbs, families will celebrate a victory in youth basketball at a seafood franchise or peer through glass cases in supermarkets, looking for a special selection from the sea.
Perhaps they'll order scallops sauteed in butter or wrapped in bacon and horseradish, and made available by a guy from North Carolina who spent days at sea off the coast of New Jersey on a rusty hulk of a boat, trying to earn a living in the cold and increasingly dangerous Atlantic Ocean.
Last year was one of the deadliest in New Jersey waters in almost 90 years, with 12 commercial fishermen dead in four separate boat accidents off the coast. In December, two Virginia men died off Ocean County when their 38-foot scallop boat, the Alisha Marie, sank. Last March, the Lady Mary, a North Carolina boat operating out of Cape May, sank on a scallop trip, killing six of the seven crew members.
"We all know the dangers. There's a market for it, so somebody's got to go out there and get them," said Steve Cummings, 45, a fisherman from Pimlico County, N.C., one recent winter morning while preparing to embark on a trip from a commercial dock in Cape May. "It's what we do. I've been doing it for 18 years."
New Jersey's geography dictated that the sea would be profitable in the Garden State, and fishermen with hooks, nets, cages, pots and other contraptions have taken to the oceans and bays to supply the regional demand for centuries. Innovations in refrigeration and overnight flights in the 20th century made it possible for a family in Nebraska to eat a scallop or flounder mere days after it was wriggling off the New Jersey coast.
With imports and exports included, New Jersey's seafood industry sees $2 billion in sales annually, said Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association.
"I think most people have no idea at the amount of labor that's involved in the industry," he said.
The connection between supply and demand has never been simple in seafood. In addition to the safety hazards, today's fishermen must navigate government regulations and deal with concerns from scientists, environmental groups and recreational fishermen to fill a seafood platter.
Most forms of aquatic life prized for their taste, such as flounder, are heavily regulated by the federal government, most notably by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Commercial fishermen are given catch limits, prohibited from certain waters during specific months to allow species to recover and are often given a set number of days per season that they're allowed on the water.
Earlier this week, a scallop fisherman from Cape May filed a federal lawsuit against both government agencies, claiming they are unfairly revoking permits and have been using bad science in their attempts to preserve scallop stocks.
"It makes us take chances," said Cummings of the regulations and limited days at sea.
The Sea Tractor, a 44-foot boat based out of North Carolina, was taking a chance this November, Cummings and other fishermen believe, when it stayed out in a nor'easter to take advantage of every possible fishing hour during the strict 11-day fluke season.
The Sea Tractor sank in turbulent seas about 20 miles off Cape May, killing the captain, his father and another North Carolina man.
"The Sea Tractor had a gun put to its head," said Mike Cappa, a boat owner in Cape May.
The U.S. Coast Guard is often caught in the middle of the regulation and safety issues that affect commercial fishing. They enforce government regulations, board vessels to check for proper safety equipment and, when ships go down, Coast Guard cutters and helicopters are often the last hope for survivors floating in the frigid sea.
"It was a particularly tough season," Lt. j.g. Jodie Knox said of New Jersey's deadly year in 2009. "I walk into work every day and have no idea what's going to happen."
Knox said fishermen may have balked at attending Coast Guard safety seminars in the past, but when about 40 captains showed up at a recent seminar on boat stability near Cape May, she realized that the agency's relationship with fishermen may have evolved.
"I think they understand that if you're going to go out in the elements and expect us to come rescue you, they need to be able to help us rescue them," she said.
Cappa said most fishermen are grateful that the Coast Guard is out there when they need them, but he feels that the federal regulations, coupled with the uncertainty of looking for fish, scallops and other table fare in an oceanic haystack, are the issues that truly keep fishermen awake at night.
"It's hard to make a living," he said, standing next to a scallop boat on Cape May's Fisherman's Wharf. "It leaves you bitter."
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