North Carolina’s commercial fishermen—who work primarily in independent, small-scale operations—landed 66 million pounds of fish last year, but rather than ending up on North Carolina plates, the majority was whisked out of state to markets where it could fetch a higher price.
“I think more New Yorkers eat North Carolina seafood than North Carolinians,” says Ann Simpson, who grew up in a small town on the coast and currently directs North Carolina Catch, a partnership of smaller organizations working to strengthen the state’s local seafood economy.
To fill the void created by the export of its catch, North Carolina—like most states—ships in seafood from abroad. Today, around 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat has been imported from places like China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador, and the average fish travels more than 5,400 miles between the landing dock and point of sale.
“People come to the coast looking for fresh seafood, and for the most part, they’re getting seafood from halfway around the world, which they’re eating in a local setting,” says Noelle Boucquey, assistant professor of environmental studies at Eckerd College, who studied North Carolina’s fisheries while at Duke University. Patronize a vendor at the Outer Banks Seafood Festival in Nags Head, and you’ll face the same conundrum.
North Carolina’s geography enables its waters to support a diverse array of species. The cold-water Labrador Current from the north meets the warm-water Gulf Stream from the south just off of Cape Hatteras, and the differing temperatures cause an upwelling of nutrient-rich water. In addition, the 200-mile-long string of barrier islands off the coast creates a network of protected habitats. Rather than relying on a dominant species, like salmon in Alaska or lobster in Maine, commercial fishermen in North Carolina catch between 30 and 50 types of fish across all four seasons.
“We don’t do one thing year-round,” says longtime fisherman Dewey Hemilright, who operates a 42-foot boat named Tar Baby out of Wanchese, North Carolina, catching tuna, swordfish, bluefish, spiny dogfish, croakers, blueline tilefish, and many others, depending on the season. “The diversity of fisheries is what makes us unique.”
Despite the variety, North Carolina fishermen—like their counterparts across the country—face a number of pressures. Imports’ effects on the market, state, and federal regulations, the disappearance of the working waterfront, and environmental degradation have caused many commercial fishermen to abandon the trade. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of commercial fishermen in North Carolina declined from 4,200 to 2,600—or about 38 percent. “It’s getting tougher,” Hemilright says.
A Deep-Rooted Fishing Culture is Threatened
Commercial fishing has a deep and rich history in North Carolina. Cultural anthropologist Barbara Garrity-Blake, a resident of the seaside community of Gloucester, North Carolina has studied the state’s coastal fishing villages for years. “The first thing you hear out of a fisherman’s mouth is, ‘Fishing is in my blood. My dad, my daddy’s daddy, my daddy’s daddy’s daddy’—they go all the way back, say, ‘I am the last of six generations of commercial fishermen,’” says Garrity-Blake, who serves on the advisory board for the North Carolina Sea Grant, a program which provides research, education, and outreach to coastal communities. While fisherman see themselves as “culture bearers,” she says, they also recognize their role in putting food on people’s plates.
Several issues have led to the decline in the fishing industry. First, like everywhere, the cheap price of imported seafood makes it more difficult for North Carolina fishermen to compete. “One of the toughest issues for local seafood is it will seem expensive by comparison to an imported product,” Simpson says. But with imported seafood, she adds, “you’re not really sure what you’re getting most of the time. If you find a really cheap pound of shrimp or fish, chances are it might not have been grown or caught under the best circumstances.”
Secondly, state and federal regulations place size and catch limits on the certain types of fish to protect stocks, like summer flounder, in danger of being depleted. While commercial fishermen acknowledge a certain amount of regulation is necessary to promote the health of the state’s fisheries, many feel the regulations are not based in science, and that they’re getting regulated out of business.
Compounding that trouble, the politically powerful recreational fishing sector in North Carolina has tried to exclude commercial fishermen from being allowed to catch certain species, including red rum, the state fish, as well as speckled trout and striped bass, to “nurture the potential” for recreational fishing by eliminating competition.
“There isn’t really an ecological argument for [the exclusions] at all,” says Boucquey, who wrote her dissertation on the tension between commercial and recreational fishermen in North Carolina. While commercial fishermen are not always perfect in their methods, Boucquey says, they hold a deep knowledge of the state’s fisheries and economically help balance the more volatile recreational fishing sector. “It’s just not reasonable to restrict a resource for one demographic or the other,” she says.
Wanchese fisherman Hemilright also points out that unlike recreational fishermen, those in the commercial sector provide the general public the opportunity to eat local food. “We’re giving access of this resource to all North Carolinians, not just the wealthy few,” he says.
Commercial fishermen also have to deal with the fact that as North Carolina beaches have become an increasingly popular destination for vacationers, and high-end vacation homes and marinas for private boats have proliferated, causing the working waterfront to shrink dramatically. Between 2001 and 2011, 47 fish houses—wholesale facilities that process and package fishermen’s catches—closed for good, shrinking the total number by 36 percent, according to the Sea Grant’s last inventory.
“Now there are zero fish houses on Harker’s Island,” says Garrity-Blake, who has studied and written extensively about the operations. “There used to be six, eight, ten. Now fishermen have to go greater distances to have their vessels worked on or to find a place to pack out.”
Environmental contamination also presents a problem as well: Pesticides, herbicides, and manure-contaminated water run off the farmland and into the rivers in Eastern North Carolina and ultimately end up in the state’s estuaries, contaminating the water and leading to closures of oyster, scallop, and clam fisheries.
“Water quality issues are huge in this state,” says Simpson of NC Catch. “Even the fishermen off of Ocracoke Island 24 miles out in the sea talk about the problems they see with pollution, with runoff in the estuaries, that lowers reproduction rates of viable species.”
Building Fish-Fueled Relationships Across the State
On weekend mornings in 2010, long-time friends Lin Peterson and Ryan Speckman would drive from Raleigh to the coast to pick up a couple Igloo coolers of fresh-caught shrimp. Armed with a peddler’s permit, they’d bring the seafood three hours back to the Triangle, where they’d sell it on the side of the road from the back of Speckman’s pickup.
Six years later, the company still drives to and from the coast to bring back fish—but now, it goes three to four times a week. Their business, Locals Seafood, has opened a processing facility in Raleigh, and they sell local fish and shellfish at several Triangle farmers’ markets, through a Community Supported Fishery, or CSF, and at a number of inland grocery stores. Additionally, they sell wholesale to chefs at about 50 restaurants.
In response to the factors working against commercial fishermen in North Carolina, a number of operations promoting local seafood have emerged in recent years. These operations give independent fisherman a much-needed additional avenue by which to do their business and share their stories.
“We’re not the solution to everything,” Peterson says, “but we’re doing the best we can to bring truly local product inland, to connect people to the resource and the people catching it, and to give them a high-quality product they can feel good about eating and enjoy.”
While traditional supply chains ship North Carolina seafood north to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Maryland or south to Atlanta to be sold or exported, one main goal of North Carolina’s local seafood advocates is to build new supply chains that stretch west across the state and give North Carolinians access to the coastal resource.
One of the first groups to start bringing North Carolina’s seafood west was Walking Fish Cooperative—one of the oldest still operating CSFs in the country—founded in 2009 by a group of graduate students at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. A few other direct-to-consumer organizations, like Salty Catch Seafood Company out of Carteret County and Bella Bean Organics out of Durham, offer North Carolina-caught seafood to inland audiences as well.
Josh Stoll, a Walking Fish founder who went on to launch the national CSF network LocalCatch.org, says he values the direct-to-consumer approach in part because it encourages conversations about fisheries not centered on intense, fiery debates like those between commercial and recreational fishermen. “With a CSF, you have a new platform to regularly connect with the public about what you’re doing and what’s going on and how you can improve things,” he says. “That ability to facilitate a thoughtful dialogue is so rare in fisheries, and yet so critical.”
Peterson of Locals Seafood stresses the educational component involved in selling local fish in a state where such a wide variety is available. “A big part of our business is educating people about why we don’t have tuna every week,” he says, and introducing less appreciated types of fish so fishermen can diversify their catches. For less familiar products, the Locals website offers recommendations like “If you like salmon, you’ll like amberjack!” plus pictures, recipes, and fishermen’s stories.
North Carolina native John May, the chef at Piedmont restaurant in Durham (formerly of Chef and the Farmer in Kinston), buys from Locals Seafood every week. “I think the biggest thing is having an open mind, from a chef and a consumer standpoint,” he says. “I could choose to serve the most relatable fish, and those would sell, or I could choose to serve dogfish and mullet, because they’re very sustainable and delicious.”
Serving local puts less stress on the overall food system than buying salmon from Alaska, he says. “We’ll have our own market and create our own job opportunities on the coast, and that’s what we should be doing for people who make a career out of it.”
Simpson of NC Catch describes herself as “mostly optimistic” about the trajectory of the local fishing movement in North Carolina. “I would love to see more availability of local seafood direct-to-consumer and in existing retail markets,” she says. Still, she’s heartened by the fact that the local movement has finally embraced seafood. “There’s so much focus right now on the benefits of buying local food products,” she says. “Fish hasn’t always been wrapped into that local foods package. It is now.”