CAPE MAY — Word was out — a transient fishing boat had hit a swordfish bonanza out in the Gulf Stream off Cape May and the North Carolina boat was coming to the Lobster House dock to unload.
The 60-foot Big Eye was loaded with almost 13,000 pounds of swordfish, 3,000 pounds of mahi mahi and 2,000 pounds of tuna. It found the hot spot 160 miles out and caught the fish in just six days. A previous trip got a similar load of fish, but it took 16 days. The boat wanted to unload and get back out fishing.
“We got some special fish because we got big fish. Nobody else has got them,” Big Eye Capt. Chris “Chompers” Hanson, 39, of Wanchese, N.C., said.
Hanson, who has been swordfishing for 14 years, and is featured on Discovery Channel’s “Swords: Life On The Line”, has seen the good days and the bad days. Friday was a good one for him and the Lobster House dock.
It’s a side of the commercial fishing industry the public doesn’t know much about. The Lobster House has its own boats, and buys some seafood for its fish market and restaurant patrons, but sometimes other boats, some from a long way away, fill their holds off the New Jersey coast and head to the nearest dock to unload, or as they call it, “pack out.” When they cash in, so does everybody else.
“It’s the trickle-down effect,” dock owner Keith Laudeman said.
A local trucker will haul the fish to market. The boat needs fuel, ice for freezing fish and food for its crew. There are handling fees, and the crew of the Big Eye will likely spend some money in the local economy.
On Friday morning, the dock was buzzing with activity as dockworkers hauled swordfish, the largest weighing an estimated 550 pounds, out of the Big Eye. Forklifts moved the fish around as workers iced them down. A refrigerated box truck came in to haul the fish to market.
A fish broker from Boston arrived to check out the catch and get ready to move it up a chain that will mean a healthy payday all around.
“By the time it gets to the plate, a dinner table or a restaurant, it could be six different hands going up the chain,” said Charlie DiPesa, who works for F.J. O’Hara Sons, the Boston wholesaler buying the catch.
The federal government says seafood will generally increase sixfold in value as it makes its way from boat to consumer. It can depend on the condition of the fish, the current market price and how much it gets moved around.
DiPesa said this catch will head to Boston on Sunday morning but some could be then be sold to markets in New York, Baltimore or Philadelphia. He could only give approximate values for Big Eye owner/operators Hanson and Anna Strawser, who will then dole out shares to the four members of the crew.
“It depends on the condition and the market. I’d say $5 to $6 per pound back to the boat for the swordfish, $3 a pound for the small tuna and $10 for the large tuna, and $3 to $3.25 for the mahi mahi,” said DiPesa.
At $6 a pound, the largest fish would be worth $3,300 to the Big Eye and almost $20,000 by the time it is eaten.
Fishermen will unload in their home port if they are fishing nearby. Swordfish have a pretty large range, heading south in winter and north in summer, so boats often unload in other ports. Hanson said he fishes as far south as Puerto Rico in the winter and north to the Grand Banks off New England in summer. He uses a method known as long-lining that employs lines of baited hooks set out from the vessel.
The scale wasn’t big enough to weigh the largest fish. Hanson said he had six swords over 400 pounds and 10 more than 200 pounds. The port of Barnegat Light has a swordfish fleet and is used to such sights. Hanson noted the Barnegat Light boat Frances Ann is also catching big swordfish offshore. But the port of Cape May doesn’t have a large long-line fleet and Laudeman said he hadn’t seen so many big swordfish since the 1970s. It drew other fishermen to the dock.
“It’s been 20 years since we saw fish like this,” Peter Hughes, of Atlantic Capes Fisheries, said as he took pictures on his cell phone.
Penny Rickenback, a Pennsylvania artist who comes to the dock in the mornings to paint watercolors, was also excited, though she said she has seen gigantic halibut unloaded from a boat in Alaska.
“I think it’s tremendously exciting. It’s amazing they still catch them that big,” Rickenback said.
That could be part of the swordfish success story. The fish was in trouble a quarter-century ago, due mostly to overfishing by other countries. Swordfish are caught by about 50 different countries and managed by an international body called ICCAT, or International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. In 1987, the average swordfish caught was just 56 pounds and they don’t spawn until they reach at least 100 pounds. In 1991, spawning stocks were 40 percent of 1978 levels.
The U.S. was at the forefront of conservation efforts and now stocks are fully restored. U.S. catches are up 40 percent since 2006, though landings are still about 1,000 metric tons below the country’s 3,907 metric ton annual quota. A lot of boats stopped fishing for them during the lean years and have been slow to return.
Strawser said they would head back out as soon as they can get ready. She also said they wouldn’t hesitate to pack out here again.
“It’s a nice fish house — a really nice set-up,” she said.
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