Warming conch collectors' hearts

Nature: Storms churn water and wash seafood delicacy onto the beach for harvest.

March 22, 2001|By Lauren Mayk | Lauren Mayk,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. - Ed Blaine rubbed his hands together in the cold, salty wind.

The wind was milder than he had expected for the week. It tossed his hair and ruddied his cheeks, but it hadn't brought the waves and erosion that were expected.

Storms can ravage shore towns such as Sea Isle City, but they also can make lifelong commercial fishermen such as Blaine and David Kielmeier grin.

That's because big storms churn the water, washing up conchs - in demand by seafood restaurants in New Jersey and Philadelphia - onto the sand. There, hungry seagulls and fishermen descend upon the mollusks.

"Three days ago, we had this planned," said Blaine, 43, of nearby Seaville, referring to a dash along the ocean in Cape May County to collect conchs to sell for 60 cents per pound, including shells.

Blaine and Kielmeier bolted about the beach, scooping up the half-buried creatures from the wet sand. They seemed to be playing a fierce game of hot potato as they tossed shells into a basket in the back of their pickup.

It was their second foray on the beach. They had been out the night before to scout it. Toward lunchtime, Kielmeier, 46, of Rio Grande, also in Cape May County, slowed down and walked around the side of the truck to peer at their stash. But there was no time to rest. Blaine cried, "Over there!" - and they were off and running again.

Conchs can be caught in the water using a wooden or plastic "conch pot" baited with horseshoe-crab meat, but they wash up on the beach only when a big storm strikes, Blaine said. Months or years can go by without a big hit.

Blaine and Kielmeier expected to fill the back of their truck with a few thousand pounds of conchs. But about noon, they had reaped only about 35 pounds.

The conch run was part work, part play for the men, who make their living catching and selling blue crabs, bluefish, mackerel and other fish along the New Jersey coast.

"It's been a long, hard winter," Kielmeier said.

The men talked of the hardships of an industry complicated by new regulations and uncertain relationships between sport and commercial fishermen. They lamented the pressures of trying to comply with the regulations and still make a living, but they went about their work with toothy grins, and they were quick to offer a few handfuls of clams to strangers they met on the beach.

At 18 to 20 cents apiece, the clams in a half-full bucket the pair collected weren't meant to make a profit, Kielmeier said. They were dinner.

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