Behind Long Beach Island’s Oldest and Largest Commercial Fishing Company
Written by Lisa Simek
Photos by Britton Spark
Vikings. Most often stereotyped in Hollywood as horned helmet-wearing, lawless, bloodthirsty barbarians—the Vikings have been greatly misunderstood. Sure, some of them may have racked up a brawny reputation as ruthless conquerors of the seas, but the traits that a vast majority of Vikings actually had were that of an outstanding skill in craftsmanship—especially ship making— seafaring, exploring and settling of the West (many historians believe that Vikings actually discovered America before Christopher Columbus was even born). In fact, most Vikings weren’t really all brutal raiders, but rather peaceful tradespeople and farmers. They were rather cosmopolitan and multicultural, travelling to barter goods from Scandinavia as far as Constantinople and North America. They were also quite gender egalitarian, as for centuries Viking women enjoyed more power and authority than their mainland European sisters. Vikings were renowned for their ships, which at the time were extremely high tech and an integral part of their culture, facilitating commerce and establishing world trade routes, as well as providing as a means to explore the unseen world.
In Old Norse, vík means “inlet, cove, or bay” and the ending -ing means “belonging to, or one who frequents”. Thus, the word Viking actually means “one from or one who frequents the sea's inlets or bays.” This is why it’s no surprise that Barnegat Light’s most famous dock, Viking Village, which was settled by Norwegian immigrants at the turn of the 20th Century, pays homage to such a strong influence of heritage of the Nordic culture. The Norwegian settlers of Barnegat Light (then, named Barnegat City) left a significant mark on the island’s history through the development of the region’s school houses, churches, and businesses, and, much like the Vikings, they came to the New World as skilled craftsman and tradesmen, and ended up settling down and establishing fruitful livelihoods by the sea.
In the early 1900s the quaint little dock on the northernmost end of the island was gradually built by Norwegian settlers, even using wood leftover from the old Causeway bridge. In 1927, several Scandinavian fishermen, spearheaded by a man from Norway named Otto Olsen (whose family still lives in Barnegat Light today), united to form the Independent Fishing Dock. Over the years as the dock continued to grow, it was bought by another Norwegian immigrant named Erling Hem with his wife Barbara, and was then renamed Viking Village. After changing hands once again to a man named Dick Day, by the 1970’s before dredging of the Barnegat Inlet began, the shoals and sandbars would cause boats to run aground and with an unstable future in the location of his dock business, Day decided to sell Viking Village to Captain John Larson Jr. and Captain Lou Puskas—who are credited for pioneering tilefishing in the Mid-Atlantic—and it remains in their and their families’ hands present-day. Although Viking Village was at first known for its lobster co-op and surf clam economies, it eventually evolved into the world-class scallop, gillnet and longline fishing operation that it is known for today.
Viking Village services about 35-40 boats at its docks and nearby marinas, with 13 of them belonging to the Larson family. In its early days, the boats were very primitive and included small skiff-type boats that caught sea bass, lobster, weakfish and bluefish. The trappers who worked at Viking Village in the beginning caught lobsters and sea bass, and the gillnetters caught bluefish and weakfish, even some fluke very early on.
Today, Viking Village is proud to provide the following fresh, wild-caught, local seafood from its
whose peak season is from April-July (The largest and most significant marine fishery at Viking Village)
whose peak season is March – October
(which is bycaught June-November)
Swordfish and Tuna,
whose peak season is June-November (Note: Barnegat Light is famous for its New York Big Eye [Tuna], which are prized for sashimi, in addition to Yellowfin, Albacore and Bluefin Tuna)
Monkfish, Skate and Skate Wings,
which have two peak seasons: mid-April through
mid-June, and Winter Skate in late October through late January
is typically caught in the spring.
is generally available year-round
In case you haven’t heard, Long Beach Island is known for amazing scallops. Not only can these briny mollusks be found listed on the menus of almost every restaurant up and down the island, but these delicacies are exported worldwide, even touted as none-other than the infamous “Viking Village Scallops” at first-rate, Michelin-star rated eateries in the finest of restaurants in the heart of Paris (I’ve seen it myself). And to think, we have access to such an incredible product right in our very own backyard.
Viking Village is home to one of three major scalloping ports in New Jersey, along with Cape May and Point Pleasant, and comes in a whopping second place in the state for dollars landed annually of Atlantic Sea Scallops. As a company, last year Viking Village landed 2.1 million pounds of sea scallops from a fishery valued at nearly $60 million annually in the state of New Jersey— a market in which scallops retail at a generous price. But just how much work exactly goes into harvesting scallops from the sea and having them end up on one’s dinner plate?
Scallops live towards the floor of the ocean, although they don’t dig into the sand as clams do. They open and close their shells in a clapping motion to propel themselves through the water and swim freely along the bottom of the sea. When scalloping boats go out to sea, they glide a metal dredge across the bottom of the ocean and this scoops up scallops that get stuck in its chain bag-like structure. Once the crew hauls the gear up and dumps it out onto the boat, they sort through the scallops and toss out everything but the keepers. Then, while still out to sea, the crew hand shucks and cuts each scallop one at a time — at a remarkably rapid speed — before tossing the shells back out to sea in one swoop and stuffing the remaining adductor muscles (the part we eat) into a special muslin bag that is stored in ice until the boat returns to the dock.
Viking Village’s scallop fleet consists of 20 boats, comprised of 9 limited access permitted boats, 2 part-time limited access boats (single dredge) and 9 general category permitted boats (day boats). The Larson family own 13 of them, heartwarmingly enough, many are named after Captain John’s grandchildren and other family members, such as the popular Ms. Manya, which was named after his wife, Marion, who is called by the nickname. Their scallop boat, the Lindsay L, was even used in the hit Hollywood movie, The Perfect Storm, featuring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.
The duration of a scallop trip can vary from one day (dayboat scallops) to an entire week or even ten days. It takes thousands of gallons of fuel just to set out on a scalloping voyage, and each boat also must equip itself with freshwater and 10-15 tons of ice to maintain the cold freshness and coolness of the scallops. The crew of 5-7 on board are always sure to ice up before they leave for their trip.
Each boat crew of fishermen have varied responsibilities and skills. While each crew is different, most are all equipped to run, repair, and work the trip. The captain runs and operates the boat. He is the link between management and the boat. The first mate is the assistant manager of the boat and is also responsible for running the boat with the captain. The crew members consist of 3-5 deck hands, who are the workforce behind the boat. Everyone picks the pile of scallops, meaning everyone is involved in the hard work behind the scenes—the crew personally hand shucks each and every scallop that is harvested for sale. In addition to being incredibly talented with a shucking knife, the skills they possess include mechanical work, cleaning the boat, gear work, icing the boat, welding, packing the bags, and assuring the dredges have fresh shoe-steel on them for proper scallop-collecting. The boats are also kept impeccably clean because the scallops are a food product. A mission is considered successful if it produces 12,000- 18,000 pounds (which is the maximum amount allowed) of scallop meat in one trip.
Depending on the type of boat, it’s capacity and licensing, some boats catch smaller scallops while others are able to travel to unique spots in order to gather larger ones. But generally, the Viking Village boats are after larger scallops since those are in higher demand. They are just as tender and tasty as smaller ones, and tend toward colder water. Since juvenile scallops are in their reproductive stage, by targeting larger scallops, scalloping is overall very sustainable. Most of the time, juvenile scallops actually sift right out of the dredge. The Marine Stewardship Council declared the Atlantic Sea as a certified sustainable fishery, and The New England Fishery Management Council and the Assistant Administrator for Fisheries (NOAA) regularly implements strict management requirements to address resource management and prevent the overharvesting of scallop fisheries.
Scalloping, as a trade particularly on Long Beach Island, supports many local families. It is not only important as consumers to understand the way local fishermen catch our seafood but the lifestyle that goes along with it and how it affects the culture and local economy. An institution on the island, Viking Village and its surrounding shops preserve and present the story of the fishing industry past, present, and future—subconsciously honoring the effort, sacrifice, and courage of those who built the Viking Village fishing industry of LBI as we know it today. So next time you take a bite out of that sweet, buttery, fresher-than-fresh scallop, remember all of the hard work that went into delivering this mollusk from the sea to your dinner plate. And if you stop by the Viking Village docks for a tour, give the crew members a smile or a wave. They will surely be grateful for the appreciation.