First published in The Record on Jan. 18, 2018
On a dangerous trip, New Jersey fishermen struggle to hold on
It was 10 degrees outside, a blizzard was on its way, and Roy Deal was in no mood to fish. Deal sat in the blue captain’s chair in the wheelhouse of the Donna Lynn, his 60-foot fishing boat, and felt cold air penetrating cracks in the glass.
He passed the seawall at 3:55 a.m. Three hours to sunrise. Deal gave the wheel a hard half-spin. The Donna Lynn pitched to starboard, away from the lights of Manhattan.
Deal held the turn till his bow pointed north and east, into the black Atlantic.
This trip would be dangerous. The pay would be low. And Deal was feeling grumpy.
“It’s wintertime in the Atlantic,” said Deal, 59. “This is a one-mistake game. It’s cold, it’s slippery and the deck is steel. If you fall, it’s gonna hurt.”
Deal nodded back toward the bunkroom and his sleeping son, Roy Deal Jr.
“I usually don’t go out in weather this cold,” he said. “This is for him.”
The younger Deal has a wife, two kids, two car payments and a mortgage on a house in Hazlet. To claim ownership of this boat from his father, he must net enough fish to pay his living expenses plus maintain the Donna Lynn, a 52-year-old trawler with a red hull, a white cabin and a tired Detroit diesel motor that blows blue smoke.
“We got no heat, no bathroom, no insurance. Too expensive!” the elder Deal said. “If you have to go, pee over the side!”
The Donna Lynn docks in Belford, near Sandy Hook, on New Jersey’s north coast. People have caught and sold fish here since the 1600s, said Clyde MacKenzie, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the author of a book on local fishing history.
Between expenses and what both Deals view as punitive regulation, they fear Roy Jr., 38, may be forced to find another job. If that happens, Belford’s 350-year tradition of commercial fishing may end with him.
“All the guys who own boats in Belford are 60 years old or older,” said Jim Lovegren, president of a fishing cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach, 30 miles south. “There’s nobody there to pick up the ball.”
Roy Jr. can’t afford to think so far ahead.
“In weather like this, you can’t come out here and risk all your gear for nothing,” he said. “We’re out here today just to pay the bills.”
As Roy Sr. steered the Donna Lynn into open water, something else tugged at him, something that felt like guilt.
“I don’t know, I hope I didn’t force him to go into this business,” he said. “We used to make good money. Now we’re just hanging on.”
Engine swap at 17 cents a pound
Fishing at the mouth of New York Harbor is like driving the New Jersey Turnpike, except here the vehicles approach from every direction. Chugging across the entrance to the East Coast’s busiest port, Deal skirted three huge container ships, a tanker with lights identifying its cargo as hazardous, a pleasure boat and a fuel barge.
It was a slow day.
“Sometimes it’s busy as hell,” he said.
More obstacles hid below. A computer screen bolted to the wheelhouse roof showed the ocean floor marked with X’s, each denoting a submerged boulder, piece of steel or garbage, anchor or log that has snagged a fishing net.
Every snagged net costs $3,000 to replace. Filling the diesel tanks costs $19,200. If the sonar breaks, that’s another $7,000.
Next month, the Deals will replace the Donna Lynn's engine for the first time since 1991. It will cost $40,000.
“You can’t afford to break even on a trip,” Roy Jr. said. “Stuff breaks, and it’s expensive to fix.”
On this trip the younger Deal hoped to earn money at 17 cents a pop, the market price per pound of spiny dogfish, a slot-nosed shark with brown skin and fins down its back. From Belford, dogfish are trucked to Maine and processed into fish sticks.
He also hoped for skate, which resemble miniature manta rays. Using a sharp knife, he detaches each skate’s torso from its wings, which sell as lobster bait for 40 cents a pound.
“We’re going out for garbage fish,” his father said. “We’re gonna be picking up dogs and mud and slime. There’s no money here.”
The Donna Lynn is the third boat Roy Sr. has owned. With expenses rising and income dropping, he gave up saving for new boat.
“This is the last one,” he said.
A village on the brink
The ocean was dark when Roy Jr. unspooled his green, fine-bored net into the sea. When he retrieved it, sky and sea were calm and gray. He hoisted it aboard, spilling hundreds of fish onto the deck.
The younger Deal started to sort. Using a stick with a nail through the fat end, he stabbed each fish and flung it into a barrel.
Each barrel weighs 300 pounds when full. To move one, Roy Jr. pressed his hips against the blue plastic and shoved.
“A lot of this is dumb grunt work,” he said.
In the pile he found a bluefish, worth $2 a pound. Government regulations closed the bluefish season, however, so he lobbed the fish overboard.
“There’s $25 I can’t have,” he said.
Spend an hour with the Deals and they will spend 50 minutes complaining about the government. Their grievances are long and mostly unprintable. The crux of their argument: Science is wrong. The ocean has plenty of fish. Scientists and federal bureaucrats simply spend too much time plotting their cushy retirements to notice.
“There’s more fish out here than I’ve ever seen, Roy Deal Sr. said. "We don’t want to slaughter them. We just want a little bit more. The government ruined this business. They regulate us to death.”
He is wrong about the science — fish stocks remain near historic lows, said John Bullard, who oversees NOAA’s fisheries service from Maine to North Carolina. But Deal is right about the impact of government regulations on Belford’s fishing industry.
The solution isn’t to let the Deals catch more fish. It’s to let fish populations rebound to a stable size, Bullard said, and build an industry around that.
“Yes, it causes short-term pain, and that pain is real," Bullard said. "Some businesses may go out of business. Historic fishing villages like Belford need to be protected. What protects them are healthy fish stocks. What kills them is short-term thinking.”
Outsiders hope Belford can survive that long.
“Belford is unique,” said Jim Lovegren of the Point Pleasant Beach fishing cooperative. “They’re in the shadow of New York City. It’s a historic fishing village, and they’re on the verge of dying.”
Rescued, for now
Three times Roy Jr. dropped the net. Each time it returned with dogfish, half as many skates and a few squid. Each time he sorted the pile by stabbing fish with a nail.
Occasionally he stopped, lifted his hat, and used the nail to scratch his head.
“It’s a lot colder today than I thought it was going to be,” he said, his sweaty hair exposed to the wind.
After the final haul, Roy Sr. received a radio call. The Sea Catch, another Belford-based trawler, had broken its propeller shaft and was bobbing powerless near Long Island.
Deal’s fishing trip became a rescue mission.
“I don’t care who it is,” he said, “I don’t leave anybody out here.”
Sailing north 3 miles, finding the Sea Catch, fixing a rope to her bow and towing her home added three hours to the Deals’ 13-hour day. As the Donna Lynn sailed for Belford, the blizzard hit. Visibility dropped to an eighth of a mile. On deck sat 28 barrels of dogfish and 12 barrels of skate wings, together worth about $3,000.
It was not enough money to save for future disasters. It would not help Roy Jr. buy a new boat. As Roy Sr. drove into Compton Creek, he called a fuel company and ordered 400 gallons of diesel.
“It’ll just get us through the week,” he said.