The Folks Next Door

Aerial view of the seafood industrial park

J. Foster Scott

a coast under clouds

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 3, "Coastal Affair." Find more from that issue here.

NORTH CAROLINA'S SEAFOOD Industrial Park at Wanchese and the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed Oregon Inlet jetties have been best friends for years. The two economic development projects grew up together and are still bosom buddies.

In fact, their futures are so closely intertwined that the millions of public dollars poured into the park may be wasted if the Corps is unable to make the turbulent inlet “stable.” More than a year after the Seafood Park officially opened, it has only one tenant — a trawler repair firm; other companies, though interested, are waiting to see what happens to Oregon Inlet.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps is projecting vast economic benefits from the Seafood Park to justify spending millions more of the public’s money on the jetties project. Other, more mundane — and cheaper — methods of keeping the inlet channel open will not satisfy the needs of the booming ship traffic the new park will bring, says the Corps.

Over the past few decades, a confluence of local, state and federal interests have helped tie this unfortunate knot between the Seafood Industrial Park and jetties projects. A few local businesspeople in the 1940s wanted to improve Wanchese’s harbor and knew that, in order to expand the traditional inland waters fisheries, they would need a safe ocean outlet. They knew, too, that the Army Corps was already laying plans to stabilize Oregon Inlet in a “permanent” way. Over the years, the local boosters and the Corps generated interest in an expanded harbor and stable inlet among the area’s more prosperous fishing firms.

Subsequently, an increasing number of trawler owners — from both Wanchese and the larger South Atlantic fishing community — have invested in bigger boats and begun harvesting abundant winter supplies of flounder, grey sea trout and croaker from the nearshore area within sight of Oregon Inlet, bringing the catch into local packing houses. The change in source of supply for much of Wanchese’s fishing economy has meant growing local interest in hastening the day when trawlers could navigate peacefully from sea to sound and back. In the early 1970s, the Corps received a U.S. congressional authorization for the jetties project with the provision that Wanchese Harbor be enlarged as well.

State-level interest was piqued on several fronts. For one thing, North Carolina’s highway department built a bridge over Oregon Inlet in 1962 — ironically, against the advice of the Corps, which said the inlet was too volatile and migratory to support such a structure. In the last two decades, the bridge has required embarrassingly expensive attention to keep it in place. Also, the idea of improving the fisheries at Wanchese was consistent with a growing national movement toward making the South Atlantic fishing industry “more efficient and competitive.” The state invested in that idea, along with the federal government, and from that point, both the jetties and the Seafood Industrial Park project snowballed.



The Seafood Industrial Park concept was largely nourished by the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA), now essentially defunct, which offered coastal states planning and development grants to expand their seafood industries. EDA’s Coastal Plains Regional Commission (CPRC) — a multi-state planning body — formed a Seafood Ad Hoc Committee in the early 1970s which studied the South Atlantic states’ industry. It concluded the seafood industry could never reach its full growth potential as presently organized: a hodge-podge of small-scale, independent businesses, from the fishers to the dealers to the processors, ice suppliers, boat repair companies and trucking firms. Although many of these family-size businesses were making satisfactory earnings, CPRC and its member states foresaw a different scale of fishing, with ports where 100-foot-long and larger ocean-going trawlers would dock and sell their catch to large processors who would turn the catch into frozen fillets, canned soup and animal feed. They envisioned large distributing firms which would hold seafood in storage facilities and sell it in bulk to supermarket chains.

One official involved in developing North Carolina’s seafood park describes today’s U.S. fishing industry as “helter skelter... a bunch of rednecks. . . who throw fish around.” The vast majority of North Carolina’s fishing boats are 18 feet long or less. By contrast, he notes, the Scandinavians use large, sanitary factory ships with uniformed crews. The difference affects the marketability of the catch. The McDonalds fast food chain, for instance, which processes its fish fillets at its own plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, buys only from foreign ships with tight “quality control.”

Seafood Industrial Park proponents also maintain that larger-scale processing and cold-storage facilities would help stabilize fish prices, which tend to fluctuate widely with the seasonal supply. Having services concentrated in one port would be attractive to trawler owners: as boats become more sophisticated, they need specialized repair services for radar, sonar and other electronic equipment. Bulk ice would be available, as would fuel supplies and other necessities. Also, the advocates pointed out, with the enactment of environmental protection regulations in the mid-’70s that restricted the customary dumping of wastes from both fishing boats and processing plants, centralized waste treatment facilities would be another plus.

With this vision of Seafood Industrial Parks throughout the Southeast, CPRC made planning grants to each of its five member states. Virginia did a feasibility study for a Newport News Park, South Carolina looked into a few sites and settled on Port Royal in Beaufort County. Florida considered several Gulf Coast communities and Georgia began planning in Brunswick but was thwarted by opposition from local fishers. North Carolina used its $600,000 to begin planning for the Wanchese site.

Each state but Georgia drew up plans for a Seafood Park, and all of the plans depended heavily on EDA grants for construction. Of the four states, only North Carolina acted quickly enough to plan its park, vote state appropriations to help finance it ($2.5 million) and secure adequate EDA money ($4.5 million) to complete construction before the Reagan Administration’s budget cutbacks.

The Newport News project got as far as phase one: enlargement of the harbor and bulkheading, at a cost of $2.5 million. Further work on the Virginia park depends on whether the public will foot the rest of the bill through a bond issue. Other states’ parks are still on the drawing board, with varying possibilities of completion.



With all eyes focused on Wanchese to see how this Seafood Industrial Park idea works, the pressure to go ahead and stabilize Oregon Inlet increased accordingly. Through the 1970s, design memorandums for the Oregon Inlet jetties were drawn up one after the other at the Army Corps’ district office in Wilmington, North Carolina. The longer the Corps had to wait for a full appropriation to begin jetty construction, the higher the costs of the project became. In 1970, when Congress first agreed to the project, $10 million seemed a sufficient appropriation. By 1980, after other federal agencies successfully delayed jetty construction, the cost had ballooned to $86 million.

By 1981, the Corps was estimating that $101 million would cover initial costs, and that the 50-year life of the jetties would carry a price tag of more than half a billion dollars. At that point, with the Reagan administration cutting back on domestic expenses on all fronts, Interior Department Secretary James Watt asked the Corps to take another look at the less expensive method of maintaining a 14-footdeep channel through Oregon Inlet — dredging.

The Corps’ 40-year-old determination to jetty this most dynamic of inlets arises from a traditional agency attitude, summarized by one Corps engineer in 1979 who wrote, “Problems arising from the sea’s stubborn insistence on rearranging the world’s shorelines have plagued man since the dawn of time.” To the Corps, perhaps, a program of continuous dredging of the inlet’s channel would seem almost a capitulation to natural forces, a throwing-up of our hands and shrinking away from the challenge of defeating this troublesome foe. As the cost of the jetties grew fearsome and threatened the project’s future, therefore, the Corps developed an elaborate scenario to justify its ill-fated stabilization proposal.

Economic formulas weighing benefits and costs of any particular project are suspect when created by an agency with a vested interest in the project. The projected economic benefits from the Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park figured prominently in the Corps’ benefit/cost ratio for the Oregon Inlet project; even so the ratio was a slim, tentative 1.14 to 1, already perilously close to being too low to justify the project. To make matters worse for the Corps, serious questions have been raised by other federal resource and fisheries agencies and concerned individuals about the basis of the benefits side of the formula.

The Corps has based almost three fourths of the jetties’ promised economic benefits on a “nontraditional species” fishing scenario — founded on the premise that if Oregon Inlet is jettied, large fishing fleets will bring hundreds of millions of pounds of deep-water marine life, such as squid, sea herring, hake and butterfish, into Wanchese. These species appear seasonally over 150 miles off the North Carolina and Virginia coasts, and as of yet are harvested mostly by foreign factory ships. Corporate interests would supposedly move into the Wanchese Seafood Park to process these nontraditional species and begin tapping markets for squid in Japan, Spain, Italy and Greece; for herring in Belgium; for hake in Western Europe, and so forth. Even foreign interests, mainly Japanese, have considered moving into Wanchese — but only if the inlet is stabilized.

Wanchese’s current domestic fishing industry — though thriving even without a jettied inlet — is too small to satisfy corporate appetites, the Corps maintains, and does not contribute to the nation’s export trade.

Lesser items on the Corps’ benefits side of the formula include “bridge protection,” “area redevelopment,” “land enhancement” and “reduced channel maintenance,” but by far the “trash fish” scenario (as nontraditional species are commonly called in the United States) dominates, and government documents reveal that Wanchese is seen as a premier site for this new industry. North Carolina has been racing against other Seafood Industrial Parks planned elsewhere, particularly the one in Newport News, Virginia, which already has a stable outlet to the Atlantic Ocean and is closer than Wanchese to prime fishing grounds but does not have its facility open for corporate location.

As it is, federal fisheries agencies are questioning whether the Corps’ estimate of economic benefits exaggerates the potential catch of ocean life within a reasonable distance of Wanchese. Even if the inlet is stabilized, they say, fishing fleets may not wish to put in at Wanchese since the most abundant fishing goes on further north. Foreign fleets have caught 50 times more volume off New England and the mid-Atlantic states than they harvest in the area off Oregon Inlet.

And, as J.E. Greenfield, the chief of the Fisheries Development Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote about the Corps’ figures to an Interior Department policy analyst: “There are a number of competing ports ranging throughout the entire Atlantic Coast. . . . The Wanchese location is at the extreme southern edge of both the squid and herring grounds. Consequently, the competitive advantage of this port would be relatively brief throughout the fishing season and I feel that it might be overly optimistic [of the Corps] to assume [Wanchese] would capture 33 percent of the U.S. share of landing for these resources.”

Even a top-level North Carolina fisheries official warned the Corps in 1976 that its catch figures were only estimates, and dubious ones at that. Yet the Corps has consistently discounted critiques of its ocean marine life harvest figures because, without a strong nontraditional fisheries scenario, the agency’s fragile benefit/cost ratio breaks down completely, and Congress could not even consider appropriating funds toward the jetties project.



Once the mathematical foundation for the highly touted economic benefits of the jetties and park is jerked away, the twin projects emerge as little more than a 40-year-old bureaucratic and engineering fantasy. The real needs of the area can be met with considerably less technology or public expenditure. “What Wanchese needs is a channel through Oregon Inlet of sufficient width and sufficient depth — and with sufficient buoys,” wrote environmental planner Ken Hunter in 1981.

Hunter, who spent a year investigating the economics of the jetties project and lobbying against it, found that the Corps has managed to keep the inlet’s 14-foot-deep channel open only 25 percent of the time. Dredging this channel is difficult, especially in the stormy winter months when the inlet is most dangerous and fishing is at its peak, and the Corps complains it lacks sufficient dredge boats. But Hunter discovered that Army engineers have devoted less than a million dollars a year to dredging while their jetty design calls for sand bypassing — which is actually dredging by another name — that would cost several times more each year than is now spent on the inlet channel.

Why is the Corps reluctant to secure adequate appropriations toward maintaining the channel in traditional ways? Hunter explains, “Dredging is impermanent. Dredging leaves nothing for future generations to admire. It isn’t exciting, but in both the long run and the short run, dredging might be a lot cheaper than extending a massive, $100 million, rigid, permanent landmark out a mile into the ocean.”

If the channel were better marked and consistently dredged, as Hunter suggests, the existing fisheries at Wanchese would be relieved of a major burden — lost lives and boats in Oregon Inlet. Even without a jettied inlet or a functioning Seafood Industral Park, trawlers from up and down the South Atlantic Coast have in the past two years joined local fishers in the nearshore Oregon Inlet harvest bonanza, bringing record catches into Wanchese docks and packing houses, and enriching the village’s trawling and processing firms.

With domestic fisheries booming of late, Wanchese Harbor could use more processing and handling capacity. But a Seafood Industrial Park catering to highly capitalized fleets operating far offshore would not serve this need. On the other hand, locals have sneered at past half-hearted government attempts to set up smaller fisheries cooperatives. When asked why an earlier government-supervised buying and marketing project failed miserably, one Wancheser quipped, “They were just mountain people. They couldn’t tell a fish from a crab.”

Given the local fishery’s expanded needs and the presence of the new Seafood Park at Wanchese, it is conceivable that government action could put the two together for the public’s benefit. But such efforts would require a reversal of present policy; they would entail devoting as much energy and money toward helping local companies establish processing and marketing facilities at the park’s vacant sites as has been spent luring outside corporations.

Perhaps, as the cost of the jetties project continues to rise and more pressure from within the federal government forces the Corps to revert to more vigorous and less expensive dredging, the idea of turning the Seafood Industrial Park into a local resource will also draw more official attention. If not, the sign at the entrance of the park — “Jobs For Your Community” — may turn out to be just an embarrassing memorial to a worn-out dream and an ill-advised use of state and federal funds.