When the covid-19 pandemic sent graphic designer Britton Spark back home to Long Beach Island, N.J., the creative void in his life had to be filled.

“I felt stalled. There wasn’t any reason to make stuff,” said Spark.

He and his girlfriend, Anna Panacek, began taking morning walks in Barnegat Light, where she had family connections at the Viking Village fishing dock. There the solution hit Spark.

“I thought, ‘How cool would it be to document this?’” Spark recalled.

The F/V Capt. John heads toward Barnegat Inlet, bound for the Nantucket Lightship Closed Area South. The boat was named after one of the Viking Village founders and built by his family to honor his legacy. Britton Spark photo.

Growing up in nearby Harvey Cedars, the dock was “something I always took for granted,” said Spark. But seeing the buzz of daily activity up close, he began toting his camera.

“I’m probably at the docks five days a week,” said Spark, who posts his Instagram photos @couchchronicles. He says the imagery has been a hit with readers “who never saw fishing in that light… so the response has been really cool from non-fishermen. They just love following the project.”

At the northern tip of the island, Barnegat Inlet was dubbed Barendegat — or Inlet of the Breakers — by Dutch explorers in the 17th century. Partially tamed by Army Corps of Engineers jetties in the latter 20th century, the channel is a lifeline for a fleet of around 40 commercial fishing vessels based at Viking Village and nearby Lighthouse Marina.

In 1927, several Scandinavian fishermen formed the Independent Fish Co., a location later renamed Viking Village. In the mid-1970s the late captains John Larson and Louis Puskas, who had pioneered a new tilefish fishery, purchased the dock.

“I honestly loved it. It was so much fun, and there was so much opportunity to make money there,” said Anna Panacek, daughter of dock manager Ernie Panacek and John Larson’s granddaughter. “It has absolutely defined hard work. It has taught me so much.”

F/V Sea Farmer Captain Chris Rainone holds a giant golden tilefish with crewmen John Puskas and Riley Harris off-loading back at the dock. Britton Spark photo.
< First Mate Sam Corio and Capt. Stanley Jackson from the C.B. Keane examine their scallop catch carefully at packout. Britton Spark photo.

Today, Barnegat Light scores fifth place among East Coast ports in scallop landings at $20 million in 2018 — 83 percent of the port’s total value of $24 million, according to Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council documents.

Monkfish followed that year with $960,000 in landed value. Right behind were summer flounder, a resurgent species that the fleet’s small draggers marketed for $490,000.

The Viking Village fleet of 30 includes nine general category dayboat scallop vessels, nine with full-time permits, two longliners and eight gillnetters, according to Austin Schwerzel, receiving manager at the dock. There’s a full-time dock staff of 12, working a multitude of tasks from packing out to sales.

“We start at 8 a.m., and first thing we do is check dayboat scallops” that have come in, said Schwerzel. “The gillnetters are out, so we get ready for them,” cleaning tubs for head-on monkfish and monkfish livers that have been a specialty for years.

The ice plant turns out 60 tons to prep for boats and product, while “our sales team is taking orders 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. All the guys in New York are putting in their orders,” he said. Two workers set to preparing sushi-grade scallops as “the ultimate dayboat scallop for high-end markets,” a daily task for five to six hours. There are other tasks before gillnetters return in the afternoon.

Mate Dillon Kelly packs out a fall catch of spiny dogfish on the F/V Eliza. These fish are plentiful just off the coast of New Jersey. Viking Village recorded 1 million pounds of spiny dogfish landings in 2020. Britton Spark photo.
George West, a skilled deckhand and experienced scalloper, ties off the F/V Ms Manya after one of many summer scallop trips. Britton Spark photo.

“I’ll go pack out five boats, then sit down and do invoices for three hours,” said Schwerzel. In addition to the daily requirements, senior staff like Panacek might be involved with industry issues, from government relations to the scallopers’ close research collaboration with NMFS scientists.

“It’s a very multitalented staff,” said Schwerzel. “People are qualified to do many things.”

Spark and Schwerzel also work together, helping the photographer know when boats are coming and going, and Spark’s work appears on the dock’s social media accounts.

“Austin will take it to another level with telling people what’s going on and what boats are coming in,” said Spark. “I just find it fascinating to see how everyone there works together.”

Master tuna grader and salesman Chris Sprague examines fresh tuna coming right out of the holds of the F/V Alexandria Dawn in September. His pelagic fish grading work at Viking Village is a refined skill. Britton Spark photo.

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