A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort”
When most people think of Cape May, they think of beaches, restaurants, shops and local sights. Few visitors give a second thought to the local fishing industry, assuming it’s probably small or locally-oriented, fitting the small town feel of Cape May.
In fact, the Cape May port is the third-largest on the entire eastern coast of the United States in terms of total catch, and the fourth most valuable fishing port in America, with annual grosses around $74 million.
The Cape has been a fishing mecca since the 1700s. Early Dutch settlers tried to establish a whaling port even earlier but were wholly unsuccessful. Later colonists continued to pursue whale, and though they were equally luckless their early docks on Schellenger’s Landing were the foundation for today’s Fishermen’s Wharf.
These days, commercial fishermen trawl the area just off Cape May in the Atlantic and the Delaware Bay, catching a variety of fish and shellfish. Each year they bring in 50 to 75 million pounds of mackerel, fluke, flounder, sea bass, lobster and sea scallops – the latter are the lifeblood of the industry.
Years ago mackerel was the big catch in Cape May. An article in the Boston Commercial Gazette on May 23, 1825 remarked, “Our correspondent at Cape Island, writes to us under date of May 16th, that there was about one hundred and thirty sail of vessels then lying at anchor on Cape May Roads, most of them vessels fitted out in ports to the north of Boston, for Mackerel fishing. Each will carry from 200 to 250 barrels, and having mostly made up their loads, they are only waiting for a fair wind to sail to New York.”
That same article goes on to say, “The situation of Cape Island is such as to render it a suitable place for carrying on the Mackerel fishery extensively; and if any of the capitalists of Philadelphia choose to engage in business, they can procure hood hands in abundance in the immediate vicinity of the fishing ground.”
Today’s sport fishermen and party boats report catches of Atlantic croakers, black drum, blackfish, bluefish, clams, cod, crab, flounder, fluke, kingfish, lobster, mackerel, mahi mahi, marlin, menhaden, mullet, pollock, porgies, salt oysters, sea bass, sea scallops, shark, speckled trout, squid, striped bass, swordfish, tuna and weakfish.
Traditionally piers offered the best fishing in Cape May and were situated at Convention Hall, the foot of Decatur Street, Sunset Beach and other points around the island. Unfortunately none of these piers have survived the frequent storm surges that have hit the coast over the years.
The Cape’s location where the Delaware and Atlantic converge can create powerful currents and unpredictable weather. Even the abandoned WWII bunker is no longer available for fishing, after many years of anglers being able to climb a staircase to the top and position their rods over the edge. While currents and catches may change over time, the Cape May fishing industry remains an important fixture of our local culture and economy.
Both the ‘Ralph J’ and the ‘Captain Johnson’ fishing boats were built by Captain Ralph Johnson’s father, Thomas. Don Pocher