The Delaware Bay and the rivers of South Jersey have provided essential sustenance to most of the region since occupation by the Lenni Lenape Indians who traveled to the coast to fish and gather shellfish. Peter Watson wrote from Perth Amboy in 1684 that, "the Indians in the summer, along with their wives come down the Rivers, in the Cannoas, which they make themselves of a piece of a great tree, like a little Boat, and there they Fish and Take Oysters."  All parts of the oyster and clam were utilized: Wampum, made out of the shells, was a common currency among the Indians.
The earliest recorded maritime-related industry was undertaken by the first settlers in Cape May Town, or Town Bankwhalers from New England who initially migrated south during the summer season. By the 1670s they had established a permanent residence there. The whalers hunted freely off the Delaware Bay coast, but Indians competed with them for the great mammals that were beached on the shore. The rivalry did not inhibit the whalers' prosperity, however, and many acquired land and large inventories of goods through the sale of whale byproducts. In 1695, for instance, Caesar Hoskins owned 150 acres, Samuel Matthews 175 acres, Thomas Hand 400 acres, and Henry Stites 200 acres. Upon Stites' death his property, valued at £174-10 shillings, included horses, cattle, sheep, swine, a whale and tackling. Other prominent Cape May whalers included Caleb Carmen, Christopher Leaming, and Lewis Cresse. 
Whaling businesses such as Humphrey Hughes' Hughes and Company were established as early as 1666. Hughes, along with Nicholas Stevens of Boston and John Cooper of Southampton, were given the right to claim all beached whales. Thirty years later, a group of London businessmen established the West New Jersey Society and bought 577,000 acres of land in the area, though its efforts toward exporting whale products to England failed.  Otherwise, whale hunting was a community effort. The animals were spotted from watch towers erected in the coastal towns. Upon death boat, a sighting, six crewmena harpooner, boat-steerer, and four oarsmenran to the boats, which were usually built locally. 
Colonial newspapers regularly reported on the whalers' success, as did the Boston News Letter of 24 March 1718, when it reported that six whales were killed off Cape May and twelve off Egg Harbor. Economy dictated that nearly all parts of the whale be used to some end: Oil and bone was shipped to other colonies and Europe. Sperm oil, in particular, produced a clean and bright light, so it was used in domestic, street, and lighthouse fixtures; it was also an ingredient in soap, cosmetics, and lubricants. Bone was used in the manufacture of canes, whips, helmet frames, broom whistles, and as spines for corsets, umbrellas, and parasols. Bones and tissues were ground up and applied as fertilizer. 
By 1700, the indiscriminate killing of cow whales caused the number of this species to decrease markedly. As a result, whalers turned to larger boats to take them farther off the coast for the hunt; with this shift, some settlers opted for the less-arduous business of cattle raising, farming, and trapping. Whaling, however, was undertaken well into the late 1700s. The last whaling transaction recorded occurred in 1775 and pertained to the leasing of Seven Mile Beach by Aaron Leaming to whalemen for thirty days.  Today, the Cape May County Museum displays whaling gear as a reminder of the once-thriving local industry.
While whalers prospered in Cape May during the seventeenth century, residents of Salem and Cumberland counties were pursuing shipbuilding and trade. The first ports in South Jersey were Salem and Greenwich. Salem became an official port of entry in 1682, Greenwich in 1687. As such, these towns contained custom houses where British taxes were collected from arriving ships. A port of delivery served as a ship's destination port as opposed to any other port where the ship might receive provisions, orders, or refuge from storms.  The locations were ideal. "Both were located [away] from the tidal marshes on fast ground bordering a major stream: Salem on the east bank of Salem Creek and Greenwich on the west bank of the Cohanzy."  They remained important centers of trade until the Revolutionary War, and Salem was fully operational when Philadelphia was still a foundling colonial hub. The founder of the towns, John Fenwick, foresaw their potential, and devised wide streets to accommodate the traffic: Salem's Wharf Street, or Salem Street, was 90' wide, and Greenwich's Ye Greate Street was 100' across. Both were lined with houses and shops that terminated at water's edge amid a cluster of docks. 
The items exported from here were diverse. With agriculture the biggest inland industry, they included wheat and corn, as well as beef, tallow, and animal pelts.  The woodlands supported the production of shingles, boards, staves, hoops, and raw timber. Wood products, especially, were shipped primarily to other coloniesmost frequently Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and the West Indies; otherwise, it was used locally to build and repair ships, wharfs, and warehouses.
Philadelphia received a large quantity of the products exported from South Jersey. Agricultural items went to the southern colonies until the late eighteenth century, when agricultural production there increased. New England and the West Indies received primarily grains and agricultural supplies, and some wood products. In turn, Greenwich and Salem merchants imported refined products and amenities such as rum, furniture, iron, wine, whale oil, codfish, sugar, molasses and salt. When the political situation changed, fewer goods were traded with England; then colonists in South Jersey who wanted European goods looked to Philadelphia.  The Revolutionary War marked the decline of the importance of Salem and Greenwich as trading centers, though it did not mean the end of active port towns in the region.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress considered Cape May of strategic importance as the entrance to the Delaware Bay. To ensure protection of river and bay, the Cape May Committee was established to inform the Congress about enemy movement. The only battle fought in Cape May County was on June 1776 at Turtle Gut Inlet, where the brigantine NANCY ran aground while carrying arms and munitions for the Continental Army. The British tried to intercept, fired upon her, and the crew abandoned the ship for fear of explosion. As they retreated, a sailor lowered the flag and took it with him. The British captain interpreted this move as a surrender, and he boarded her just as the ship exploded, killing fifty of his soldiers. Cape May County encountered more British activities than Salem and Cumberland counties during the War of 1812. Again, the British realized the important location of Cape May and its farmland, and repeatedly raided coastal farms for food and fresh water. In one instance the colonists sabotaged the enemy's supply by digging trenches from the bay to the freshwater Lily Lake. 
In 1789, Congress established districts for the collection of duties, one of which encompassed the area on the Delaware River from Camden to Cape May. Bridgeton was established as the port of entry, which served as a point for ships to load and unload under the supervision of customs regulators, and Salem and Port Elizabeth as ports of delivery. Like Salem, Bridgeton and Port Elizabeth were chosen for their locations at the head of navigable riversBridgeton on the Cohansey and Port Elizabeth on the Maurice and Manumuskin Creek. Less-important river settlements on or between smaller streams included Hancock's Bridge, Thompson's Bridge, Alloway Creek, Millville, Port Norris, and Dennisville.