Boom and Bust: a short history of fisheries management on Delaware Bay
Few people are aware of the rich cultural history that grew from the Delaware Bay’s natural abundance of wildlife. It’s a history of boom and bust that once created great wealth, land of opportunity that employed thousands of people. Today we see all pale reminders of what once was.
This is especially true for the commercial fishermen or baymen who harvest the bay’s fish, crabs and mollusks. These baymen have endured many economic hardships over the years, the latest being the reduction in horseshoe crab harvests that many fear will end this historic Delaware Bay occupation. Unfortunately the bay’s fishing industry has had a long history of boom and bust times, leaving today’s population of baymen a remnant of what they once were. The oyster is the most illustrative example of huge fortunes and thousands of jobs ultimately being lost due to overharvest and disease.
But Delaware Bay has known many other similar stories.
From 1860 to the early 1900s, the harvest of sturgeon and caviar employed up to 400 fishermen. In the late 1800s entrepreneurs pioneered the use of sealed jars to market caviar which, at the time, outcompeted Russian caviar imported from Russia in wooden casks. The industry was centered at a landing on Stow Creek in Salem County that is still known as “Caviar Point.” Sadly overfishing and pollution decimated sturgeon numbers and the population collapsed in the early 1900s. Both the New Jersey and Delaware legislatures passed laws to prevent the collapse by outlawing the taking of fish less than 4-feet long, but it was too late. Ironically, by 1985 the sturgeon population had returned to health. But state and federal officials forgot the lessons of the past and by 1995, under the pressure of unregulated harvests, sturgeon were once again decimated.
Fortesque, on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay, was once called the “Weakfish Capitol of the World” because of the large number of recreational fishermen who caught the tasty fish, which is the Delaware state fish. Also known as sea trout because its iridescent coloring is reminiscent of a rainbow trout, the highly-sought fish was a mainstay of the Delaware Bay recreational and commercial fishery. But by the late 1990s the commercial harvest had fallen by 80 percent, and by 2004 the recreational fishery had plummeted by an astounding 98 percent. As of 2010, the fishery is effectively closed leaving a sad wake of economic hardship for party boat captains and commercial fishermen.
If everyone can see that overharvest is bad, why does it happen over and over on the bay? The saga of the blue claw crab, an economic mainstay of baymen, illustrates the process. With the first accounts of overharvests dating back to the 1890s, wild swings in blue crab harvests are nothing new, and not uncommon. Today’s annual harvest of blue crabs on the bay is estimated at about 20 million pounds, most of which is caught by commercial fishermen from both New Jersey and Delaware. The crab, unlike sturgeon and horseshoe crabs, matures and breeds in its second year of life. So it is less affected by overexploitation.
But the blue claw crab still suffers from excessive catches. Since the size of the crabs determines their price, restraints in harvests would allow crabs to grow larger and worth more money. This is why Maryland crabs, which are generally larger, command a better price than Delaware Bay crabs. The situation is a prime example of what Garrett Harding in 1968 memorably called the “tragedy of the commons.” Applied to the concept of crab fishing, single fishermen will always make more money by taking too many crabs, while the costs of overfishing, population collapse and small-sized products will be shared by all fishermen. In this way, overwhelming harvest pressure keeps crabs small, undervalued and ultimately vulnerable to overexploitation.
The Delaware Bay’s commercial fishing economy has been largely decimated. It now represents only a fraction of the heavily-exploited Atlantic Coast fishery and is just a small portion of the fishery that once existed. The overexploitation of horseshoe crabs has often been cited as a blow to baymen, but the collapse of far more economically important species was well underway before the horseshoe crab fishery collapsed.