SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. - It had been a long four days at sea aboard the Two Dukes, harvesting thousands of pounds of American lobster and a sideline catch of Jonah crab about 80 miles from the New Jersey coast in an area called the Hudson Canyon.
Out where the water is deeper than a skyscraper is tall, the work days are 14 hours long and start at 5 a.m. There's really no break aboard the 70-foot steel-hulled lobster boat until a crew member "cooks a nice dinner" - usually not lobster or crab - and then it's finally time to find a bunk and grab some sleep until the next shift.
The weather is an ever-present, relentless partner in the enterprise and, on any given voyage, can range from sunbaked heat to cold, howling winds and monstrous, stormy swells. No one wastes time talking about good weather.
"I really forgot how grueling it can be," said Eric Burcaw Sr., 50, who recently came out of semiretirement to take the helm on the Two Dukes, which he operates with his brother Robert Jr.
Their dad, Robert Sr., 82, started the family's maritime business in the 1960s and still helps out dockside during the summer when the boat comes in. The family owns two other boats they use for fishing other species and for shorter, one-day lobster runs.
On their most recent four-day lobster trip, Eric Sr. found himself in the Two Dukes' captain's chair. His son, Eric Jr., who took over running the boat a couple of years ago, had broken his ankle jet skiing the previous week. The injury would preclude Eric Jr. from doing the heavy work required onboard.
So on a recent morning just after sunup, Eric Sr., along with three crew members, continued the hard work even after he had guided the Two Dukes into a slip along the docks of 42nd Place Canal on Fish Alley here.
"We try to get in early and get done before the heat really kicks in for the day. . . . We're dealing with a commodity that we have to handle very carefully," Eric Sr. said of the "pack out," which takes about four hours.
Then, before the crew is allowed to go home and have a few days off before the next trip, the boat and tanks have to be scrubbed down and readied for the next fishing trip.
Sunrise is a familiar time for the crew. At sea each day, it's when the crew begins the arduous, almost nonstop, task of hauling the "poles" - the contraption attached to the lobster traps submerged about 30 feet. By law, the pots can reside between 15 and 1,000 feet beneath the surface of the water. How deep pots are placed depends on a location's contours and geology.
There are about 100 federally issued lobster licenses held by commercial fishing enterprises in New Jersey, with about half of those currently active. Each license allows for a particular harvesting spot, mostly in the deep-sea area known as "the canyons," which runs along the continental shelf and geologically resembles an undersea Grand Canyon.
The Burcaws bait their 1,400 lobster traps with menhaden - an oily fleshed fish. As the pots are hauled in and the lobsters retrieved, each has to be rebaited before being submerged again.
During the most recent trip, the Two Dukes pulled in about 3,500 pounds of lobster and 10,000 pounds of crab. The family's federal licenses allow year-round harvest. Summer is a more bountiful time; by winter, the haul will likely be reduced in half.
As the ruddy-hued lobsters are pulled in - still alive and swimming around inside the traps - they are placed in 45-degree saltwater holding tanks that "are kind of like a big aquariums" in the boat's below-deck hold. The pinkish-orange crabs are given the same treatment.
As they are removed from the traps, they are checked to make sure they meet federal size standards - about four inches long from their eye socket to the tail. They weigh between 11/2 and 6 pounds.
Finally at dockside, the lobsters and crabs are sorted and placed in gray plastic crates and moved off the boat via a makeshift conveyor belt. From there, they're taken to the waiting trucks of seafood wholesalers and local restaurateurs.
Tuna may be considered the chicken of the sea, and the crab that Burcaws pull in is in strong demand, but lobster is still king. The delectable crustacean is fetching about $6 a pound this year on the wholesale market, compared to about $3 a pound wholesale for the crab, commonly called stone crab. Live lobsters are selling for around $14 a pound retail in area seafood markets and are served for around $20 "market price" per pound in regional restaurants.
At about 700,000 pounds, the lobster catch in New Jersey accounts for about 2 percent of the total annual North Atlantic catch. Maine fishermen, catching about 57,000 tons - or $450 million worth - of lobster annually rank at the top.
"When people sit down to lobster in local restaurants, they are likely eating New Jersey lobster, not what is commonly called 'Maine lobster,' " said Keith Laudeman, whose family owns the landmark Lobster House in Cape May and the Cold Spring Fish & Supply Co., which operates its own vessels to supply its restaurant and other eateries.
Laudeman, whose restaurant ranks among the top 50 privately owned restaurants in sales in the United States, said that while New Jersey's lobster industry may be small compared to New England's, it is important to the region.
"It is a healthy and sustainable fishery for the state," Laudeman said. "And it is one with a long and storied tradition in New Jersey."
Carmen Conti, whose family owns a restaurant, several fishing boats, and a bait and tackle store in Sea Isle, agrees.
"We're just starting out lobster fishing this year; we just got our license," said Conti, who has set about 250 traps so far. "We're starting off slowly, but I see it growing. I think it is something that is going to be good as time goes on."
Conti said he is among a growing number of lobster fisherman in New Jersey who think locally caught lobster should be better marketed.
"Customers would really like to know that the lobster came from New Jersey waters . . . like the produce is Jersey Fresh," Conti said. "It's already a great brand."