Shifting tide: Seven Mile Island’s fishing predicament
Ellis Kelsey | Seven Mile Satellite
Originally published 13 July 2019
If one has ever driven onto Seven Mile Island past midnight, one may have noticed the fishermen on the bridge casting their lines into the bay, a cool reminder that this is a fishing town — or used to be.
It’s no mystery that fishing is deep in the blood of the island, but times are changing. As I’ve discovered, the fishing community on the island has seen a drastic change over the past few decades, and the causes and effects are murkier than the water.
I began at Smuggler’s Cove on 83rd Street in Stone Harbor, a for-sale bait shop and one of the last remaining marinas in its cove. The place sells an impressive array of fishing rods and what looks to be every bait known to man. I was shocked when Paul Leiser, an employee at Smuggler’s Cove, said, “We’re the only one left and we’re probably going to go out of business.”
It didn’t make any sense. The store buzzed with customers.
I learned more. Founded by the late Lou Bachman in 1973, Smugglers Cove has been a local hotspot for bait, reels, custom rods and of course, fishing talk. They let me see the workshop, a small back room where Bachman put in countless hours of artisan work that’s still used today for rod alterations. The workshop — stocked with wrenches and warped fishing line — has the rustic appeal of a museum exhibit, anachronistic in an age of sophisticated gadgets and gizmos. It’s almost like looking into a time capsule at another era.
That’s because Smugglers Cove faces new waters.
Due to an aging client base and indefinite management, Smugglers Cove has had to change with the tide. Before Bachman died he lived above the store, making management almost second nature. Now, as an extended family member of Bachman runs the store alongside having another career, managing the Cove has become more difficult.
It’s similar to the story of other bait shops around the island. It goes like this: A bait and tackle shop owner feels the economic stress and hassle of upkeep, hands over the keys to real estate developers, who then convert the space into condos, which promise a guaranteed return on investment.
“On the island, it’s the real estate developers who have all the power,” Leiser said.
To resist, Smugglers Cove has focused its business on boat rentals and gas.
“Rental boats have been a staple for us in addition to gas,” Jason Gilman, another employee at Smuggler’s Cove, said. “Gas is everywhere — always.”
Leiser expressed his fears for the future.
“I hope we don’t sell because I love this place,” he said in between suggesting bait to a customer. “I’ve loved this place since I was five years old, but it doesn’t look good.”
If the place closes down, Leiser and Gilman hope that the Cove at least stays in use as a fuel dock for the marina’s sake.
It doesn’t help Smuggler’s Cove that the current New Jersey regulation requires any Flounder caught under 18 inches to be thrown back. Gilman described the fishing conditions: Only one out of every 20 is a keeper, compared to one out of four a couple years ago. This may have been a result of environmental changes or dredging, a process where the mud of a bay is scooped away to make room for boats with bigger hulls. Whatever the reason, fishing has lost a bit of its appeal, especially to little kids and parents — a valuable new segment of the local tourist market.
“It doesn’t even make sense,” Gilman said. “If you catch a female flounder over 18 inches you can take it home, but small, little fish you have to throw it back?”
When asked who comes up with these laws, another worker who requested to be anonymous said, “People who don’t fish!”
For now, the destiny of Smuggler’s Cove remains up in the air.
“There’s a couple of guys who want to buy it and keep it as is, and there’s a few more who want to buy it and fill in the blank,” Leiser said.
For others on the island, however, adaptation has meant a change of the business model entirely. Captain Jim Lutz, owner of Nev-R-Enuf Sportfishing in Avalon, decided years ago to downsize his bigger fishing boats and do five hour fishing tours, mostly for renter families.
“About 20 years ago it was popular to go out trolling for bluefish and that just dried up,” Lutz said. “Croakers, weakfish, blowfish, in the last 20 years all have disappeared.”
The explosion of the tourism trade and the many variables associated with charter fishing has made operating charters a risky enterprise.
“We had to switch to smaller boats, shorter duration trips; most of my customers are parents and kids,” Lutz said. “We’ve adapted the business.”
Lutz and his employee Mike Smith, a teacher during the off-season, have also been ahead of the curve in setting up pages on Yelp, Instagram and TripAdvisor.
“Some of the other guys haven’t changed and they go out of business,” Lutz said.
“These guys are older and unwilling to get with the times,” Smith added.
Like the Cove’s boat rentals, Lutz kept his business successful by catering to this new customer base instead of carrying on as if it were a decade ago.
Local fishermen, on the flip side, don’t let anything get in the way of their pastime.
I met Bob Liptak from South Carolina — or “Carolina Bob” as the locals call him — on the 8th Street jetty, fishing at dusk. He was more concerned about catching those striped bass and those Atlantic mackerel than about the implications of dredging or polluted waterways. On the bay side, muddying of bay water and rampant pesticide runoff are major problems.
But these issues don’t seem to affect the ethic of the fishermen out on the surf. The renters may fill the market of day-time tourist fishing on Seven Mile Island, but there’s likely no stopping the local fisherman from casting their lines every dawn and dusk. Liptak told me he’s usually out at the jetty fishing five times a day.
It’s hard to tell whether the fishing community on Seven Mile Island is silently passing off the torch to its young or nearing total collapse. Fishing certainly hasn’t died, that’s for sure. But one thing’s for certain: it’s changing, on land and sea.
As I headed off the jetty, I asked Carolina Bob what he did back in his South Carolinian heyday. He told me he was a real estate developer. We laughed about it as he flung out another line.
Ellis Kelsey is a writer for the Seven Mile Satellite. Contact him at email@example.com.