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Commercial Fishing on Long Beach Island

Written by Emily Warne | Photo by Ann Coen

On any given Friday morning through Labor Day, you might find Karter Larson leading groups of vacationers on tours of the docks behind the popular Historic Viking Village in Barnegat Light. He’s not showing them around the antique shops or boutiques selling swimwear, however; he’s there to tell them about the boats, explain the mechanics of operating a fishery, and describe the differences between the vessels and the types of fish they catch. The tours also give groups a taste of the day’s catch, with local chefs preparing fish and scallops fresh from the boats.

Photo by Eric Setzer

These boats collectively contribute to one of the largest aspects of LBI’s economy. “People don’t know that there’s a commercial fishing industry here in Barnegat Light,” explains Ernie Panacek, General Manager of Viking Village, Inc., one of the largest suppliers of seafood on the East Coast.

It’s a small wonder that so many seasonal regulars are unaware of the fishing powerhouse in their beach backyard, given its output. In the shadow of the lighthouse, you’ll find some 40-odd boats docked during peak fishing season between late April and October. There are gillnets, dredging for monkfish; longliners out to hook tuna and tilefish; and scallop boats, objectively the most important of all three.

Together, they’ll bring in around five to six million pounds of fish in the course of one year, Panacek estimates. Of that, one and a half million plus will be scallops, a lucrative catch given that scallop fisherman are only out on their boats about 70 days a year.

It’s also a fact that would have made John Larson—one of Viking Village’s founders and Karter’s grandfather—very happy. “It was tilefish that had started their effort to build and buy dock,” explains Panacek. “And then as time progressed, Captain John still had this vision of sea scalloping. He had scalloped years and years ago in the 50s.”

“Back then, they got 35 cents a pound. Now they get ten dollars,” he says. “It’s the most important (fish) species on the East Coast. It’s where most of the money comes from.”

Today, Viking Village is still very much a family operation—five out of six of Karter’s siblings are involved in the fishery in some way; Panacek himself is married to Karter’s sister, Kristine. And many of the other captains and fishermen in the Viking Village fleet have been working with the company for so long they might as well be considered family, even if they don’t share Larson genes.

Photo by Charles Gravener IV

Take Pete Dolan, for example, who became a captain for Viking Village at age 20. That was 31 years ago, and save for a two-year stint on a long-liner in South America, he’s otherwise captained for the LBI fleet exclusively. He was first introduced to the commercial fishing community when he was 12. “We were little dock rats when were kids,” Dolan says. “Back then, it wasn’t as big as it is now. They didn’t have a lot of full-time dock help, they just had all us kids after school.”

Today, Dolan and the other captains of the fleet lead crews of up to seven men for trips that can last as long as twelve days. It’s back-breaking—and dangerous—work. “Anything can happen,” says Karter, brandishing a hand injury that shows he is missing the tip of one of his fingers. “Somebody’s gonna get hurt. [Eventually] they’re gonna break something.”

And in such a dangerous field, tragedy is inevitable. Deciding to come back to shore or ride out an impending storm is a tough and treacherous call to make. Dolan recalls storms he’s sailed in where fellow commercial vessels, and their crew, have been lost—and excavations (of both ships and other accidents, such as military aircraft lost over sea) that his boats have participated in.

Recognizing the danger they put themselves in for the sake of their work, Viking Village holds the Annual “Blessing of the Fleet” ceremony every June, one of many events they open to the community in order to bring awareness to the importance of commercial fishing.

Photo by Eric Setzer

Viking Village also hosts the “Jazzy Scallop and Seafood Fest” every summer—this year will be its ninth—to raise money for marine science and music scholarships for local students. And that’s not the only way they giveback to community. Dolan and his crew started an Annual Good Friday Fish-Fry to benefit Elks Camp Moore, a summer camp for children with special needs. The fishermen catch all the seafood they serve themselves, donating their time and efforts, with the boat’s owner donating the vessel for the duration of the time it takes to haul in the catch. In 2016, they served over 800 dinners (prepared by the fishermen with the help of other volunteers), and earned over $10,000 for the cause.

Photo by Charles Gravener IV

In addition to raising money for charities close to their hearts, it also gives them a chance to interface with the community and educate others further on their lifestyle and work in an ever-changing world. “We have this heritage we’re trying to hold on to,” Panacek says. “There’s not a whole lot of us left, but there is a future in fishing here.”

Photo by Charles Gravener IV

You can learn more about Viking Village and its impact on LBI economy, as well as the commercial seafood trade, during the Dock Tours, held every Friday, July 7 through Labor Day at 10 AM.

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