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Lobstering alive and well in N.J.

NEPTUNE, N.J. - In the gray dawn, Joe Horvath, a New Jersey lobsterman for four decades, boarded his 40-foot Downeaster, the Baby Doll, which was tied to a splintered dock near the mouth of the Shark River.

Lobsterman Adam Horvath sorts the catch for size on his father's boat, the Baby Doll, in the Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Lobsterman Adam Horvath sorts the catch for size on his father's boat, the Baby Doll, in the Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)Read more

NEPTUNE, N.J. - In the gray dawn, Joe Horvath, a New Jersey lobsterman for four decades, boarded his 40-foot Downeaster, the Baby Doll, which was tied to a splintered dock near the mouth of the Shark River.

As the sun broke through Friday morning's clouds, his son, Adam, 33, the sole crew member, who has the thick shoulders of a man who hauls 50,000 pounds of lobster every year, untied the lines, and Horvath eased the Baby Doll through the inlet, threading under the steel girders of the highway bridges and past the Avon-by-the-Sea bulkhead and Belmar's waterfront mansions.

Then, Horvath opened up the 450-horsepower engine for the 10-mile trek through the swells, the motor howling, the wake churning, and the coastline, except for Asbury Park's high-rises, disappearing into the morning haze.

"It's a way of life," Horvath shouted.

The summer months are the peak of the East Coast lobster-fishing season.

Lobstering represents just a sliver of New Jersey's seafood industry. There are 110 state commercial lobster-fishing licenses, but only 51 are active, with a few dozen boats operating out of the Shark River slips and piers in Point Pleasant and Sandy Hook. The nearly 700,000 pounds of lobster they land each year represents about 2 percent of the national catch.

"It's such a minute industry, half the people don't even know we catch lobsters here," Horvath said. It doesn't help that Jersey-caught lobsters are commonly called "Maine lobster."

When the catch is good and prices are high, a Jersey lobsterman can earn a six-figure salary, Horvath said.

Ten miles out, the Baby Doll drifted near an area called the Mud Hole, where lobsters are known to scuttle like flophouse roaches along the ocean floor.

"What do you want - two pounds of lunch meat?" Horvath joked, changing into his plastic deli-counter smock.

At 70, Horvath's knees grind like popping corn and his shoulders feel as tattered as old rope, he said. He has the look of an aged Marlon Brando with the body of a sea turtle and a white walrus mustache. His fists are as swollen as baby blowfish. His language is as salty as the fish entrails encrusted on his cap.

He grew up in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, the son of Italian and Hungarian immigrants. His father worked New England lobster boats before settling in Philadelphia, and Horvath worked as a crane operator before buying his first boat in 1973. Working these waters, Horvath raised two boys and two girls, and now lives on a farm in Howell, Monmouth County, with his wife, Amelia.

Ten years ago, Horvath's daughter persuaded him to visit a doctor, who rushed him into surgery for a bypass. He was back on his boat in four months. He's due for a stress test, his doctors say.

"What are they, nuts?" he said. "I take a stress test out here every day."

Adam Horvath has worked with his father since his teens. He, too, owns a boat, with his brother, Joe Jr., who is also on the water on this day.

There is an unforgiving rhythm to their work.

To catch the "bugs," as they call the lobsters, they use baited traps, known as pots, that are marked with buoys.

Joe Horvath Sr. steered the boat close to the day's first buoy and his son snagged the line with a gaff. One hundred fifty feet below, 20 wire-mesh pots, hooked to the line, were splayed across the ocean bottom like a necklace.

Horvath fed the rope into a rusted hydraulic reel, sounding like a roulette wheel as it pulled up the first pot. He guided the pot to his son, who lifted it aboard. A half-dozen lobsters flopped inside. "This is a good trap," Joe Horvath said.

The pots average about 40 pounds. The men hoist 400 pots per run. Combined, the Horvaths have 2,500 pots covering three miles of seafloor.

While his father worked the hauler, Adam Horvath flipped the cages open, tossing bycatch such as crabs, eels, and flounder overboard, along with lobsters that didn't meet state size regulations (33/8 inches from eye socket to end of body), their claws snapping as they splashed back into the sea.

Then, he tossed the good lobsters onto a table, where he measured bodies and banded claws - "the handcuffs," as Joe Horvath put it - and put them in the ice box.

Next, Adam Horvath baited the traps with bunkerfish pulp – "lobster hoagie," his father said - then stacked them astern to be dropped again.

In the last decade, 18 lobstermen lost their lives in Northeast waters, according to federal statistics. Dropping traps is when a lobsterman must take the most care, Joe Horvath said. A man who gets his foot tangled in the line will be dragged to the ocean bottom. In the winter, the decks turn icy and death comes quick in the freezing water.

On Friday, Adam Horvath rarely stopped for a breath. "That's money sitting there," he said, pointing at the ice box.

The men averaged a pot a minute. The first haul: 48 lobsters, not counting two-dozen thrown back for size. Joe Horvath called these small "recruits" proof that the stock is solid.

Last month, lobstermen held their collective breath as the American Lobster Board considered a five-year ban from Cape Cod to North Carolina to protect what they consider a lobster stock threatened by rising water temperatures and other factors. The measure was voted down.

"These are the lobsters that are supposedly not here if you listen to the experts," Joe Horvath said, holding a lobster barely bigger than his palm.

The Horvaths keep about 500 pounds of lobster from a typical run, they said. And total Jersey lobster catch has doubled in recent years to 600,000 pounds, the state says.

Rather, lobstermen's blues are found in dropping prices and the tanked economy.

Four years ago, they sold lobster for up to $11 per pound. Now, the middlemen who peddle the catch to restaurants and markets offer only about $5 per pound.

Then there are poachers, who will empty a man's pots or drop their lines right on top of someone else's. "A few lobsters will make a man do goofy things," Joe Horvath said.

He knows better than most. Horvath is working with another lobsterman and state officials to ease a 10-year-old territorial dispute that once featured an exchange of gunfire at the Mud Hole. Luckily, no one was killed.

On this day, the high seas were not so rough.

By late afternoon, the sky had turned the color of ash. The swells had calmed. The bait smelled, the flies were biting, and the ice box was full. The radio gurgled with news from Joe Horvath Jr. about his best catch of the season.

The Baby Doll headed home. A crowd of customers waited at the pier, and the lobsters sold in an hour.