Living Off the Sea

Black and white photo of fishermen with backs turned to camera on a fishing boat in the ocean

Stephen March

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 1 "Good Times and Growing Pains." Find more from that issue here.

Between the North Carolina coastal towns of Morehead and Swansboro, just off the main highway, a road loops through a sprawl of houses, shacks, boats and gear. Past the gardens, the churches, a fire department/recreation center and a small grocery store, it winds through the community of Broad Creek. Midway on the loop road, a driveway of broken shells points to a collection of buildings next to a dock: the Roger W. Jones Fish Company. This is the community’s major business establishment. 

Jones Fish Company faces Bogue Sound, a body of water separated from the ocean by Bogue Banks. In recent years Bogue Banks has teemed with big name developers catering to hordes of beach-seeking, seafood-eating tourists; but Broad Creek is still miles from the Holiday Inns and MacDonalds. 

At Jones’ dock rest several 60-to-80 foot sturdy white trawlers hung with black and green nets. Their decks are wide with gaping holds and rounded cabins. On the shore are piles of clam, oyster and scallop shells, some sunbleached, others still emitting a sweet low-tide odor. 

Protected against a March breeze by flannel shirt, corduroy pants and rubber boots, a man repairs his net on an expanse of sand and shells beside the fish house. Balancing on an up-ended crate, he slashes the frayed strands with his penknife and deftly ties new string in place. A small dog steps occasionally into the net, entranced by the scent of the grey cord. 

Roger Jones, drawn to the water to see what an incoming small boat is bringing him, greets its old skipper who anchors and unloads. Then, in the small office, the man holds his straw hat in hand while Jones notes the catch, hands him bills and change. The outer office is crowded with young and old men keeping track of local news. In the other rooms are freshly washed concrete floors, a huge freezer, and stacks of clams in burlap bags, ready to be loaded into a refrigerated truck. 

At his desk, Roger Jones is surrounded by cluttered shelves, the ever-present fish species charts and two soft faded armchairs. A large painting of Miss Maxine, one of his trawlers, is his backdrop. He keeps track of markets, suppliers, prices and coastal goings-on by phone, doodling on a notepad as he talks. Jones is short, almost stocky, with a reddish complexion and blue eyes; his hair is damp, neatly combed. Checked cotton shirt and dark cotton pants are his office clothes, and his straw hat is on the shelf. 

A trucker, picking up the clams, talks at length about markets in Pennsylvania and New York. Jones is quietly reassuring. He sells to whom he pleases, dislikes the seamy ways of competing firms. As they talk, Charles Jones slams in and out of the office with messages and requests. The young man actively shares the responsibilities of the business and takes the load off his father. Clearly he will carry the fish company on in years to come. 

Broad Creek is a prime location for the Jones’ business. This coastline, third longest of the 50 states, offers a uniquely varied assortment of seafoods, due partly to its geographic location but also to the separation of northern and tropical waters created by the sharp outward thrust of the Gulf Stream at NC’s Cape Hatteras. North Carolina has the third largest breeding ground for finfish and shellfish in the US, supporting shrimp, crabs, clams, oysters, scallops, flounder, trout, bluefish, mackerel, mullet, porgy, red snapper, spot and hundreds of lesser known varieties of edible fish. Sports fishermen flock by the thousands to the beaches and boats, and trawlers venture into the ocean for some of the commercial catch. But the largest fishery in North Carolina has been and still is that which goes on in the rivers, bays and sounds, in the huge estuarine area which extends over 2500 square miles of inland water. 

Villages are interspersed with miles of lowlands; towns dot the string of islands, the Outer Banks, and fishermen go out in small boats throughout the seasons. Unlike the South’s farmers, who have been caught in a squeeze of increasing costs and increasingly competitive markets, these fishermen use much of the same equipment that their fathers and grandfathers used before them and, more importantly, continue to live off what they catch. 

Traditionally, US fishermen have captained their own small boats, built years ago with fresh fish markets in mind. Thousands still catch a variety of seafoods, employing diverse methods of distribution and marketing, but in such areas as New England, the ubiquitous fish block (bulk frozen catch from big ships) has replaced much of what was formerly landed by domestic fishermen. Saws have replaced skillfully wielded knives to produce uniform shapes, suitable for assembly line requirements of institutional feeding establishments and fast food chains. And the New England fishing industry, once the biggest in the US, has dwindled. 

Unlike North Carolina, with its shallow harbors and inland waters, northern deep water ports welcome the catch from large, mostly foreign vessels. Big processing plants, such as Gorton’s, prosper by producing fish sticks and other products from these blocks of quick-frozen fish caught by distant water fleets with sophisticated equipment on board. With such standardized markets awaiting the catch, and with the competition of vessels which can deal with large volume, domestic fishermen sometimes find it hard to survive. 

No single company dominates the fishing industry along the Southeast coast, and this is especially true in North Carolina; its fishing communities seem to foster individual, family-run enterprises. There are many ways to handle and process seafood, and coastal natives know all of them. They survive by drawing their livelihood from other related skills as well as from their home waters: they garden, build boats, operate marinas, restaurants and gift shops, hold civil-service jobs at nearby Marine Corps bases, do carpentry, plumbing and electrical work, even sell pieces of their land in lots to inlanders. Meanwhile, some fish full time, others part time. Some sell seafood on ice in the back of their pick-up truck or to their local market. 

Few communities remain that are totally dependent on fishing. The popularity of the beach as a place to retire, vacation and eat has brought new people and new industry — lured by the promise of increased incomes, residents often welcome such changes. Still, fishing and related activities continue. 

In fact, many sons and daughters of aging fishermen have expanded their parents’ operations, relying on the area’s resources, and are prospering. Besides the 5500 full-time fishermen, about 8600 workers are employed by 184 fish companies on NC’s coast. Often these are family-run operations that process and sell, truck and market their products. Husband and wife teams are particularly successful; children help out after school. Enterprising, traditional enough to utilize old methods and flexible enough to make necessary changes, these businesses flourish. 

Instead of competing with imported bulk seafood that now supplies over two-thirds of US consumers’ demands, NC fishermen are answering requests for the kind of seafood they can supply — fresh and fresh frozen products that they can deliver whole and in identifiable forms to wholesalers, distributors, retail outlets and local restaurants. According to the proud refrain, “a North Carolina fish is distinctly a fish, not a block of white meat that tastes like chicken.” 

In 1976 retail sales of NC seafood netted about $144.2 million; prices are often higher in seafood markets and grocery stores for fresh fish than for pre-packaged. But the public seems willing to pay for quality and for “real” fish, says Sam Wilburn, who has recently opened several retail seafood stores inland in North Carolina. 

“I think there will always be a need for fresh fish products — people like to see a fish, to feel it. As long as we keep the rivers clean and get a fair price for the product, there’ll be businesses like these on the coast.” 

Wilburn bought the defunct icehouse in Swansboro, refurbished it and is now supplying ice to fishing trawlers. He has also started a processing plant on the premises, and bought five trucks to deliver fresh seafood to his own stores and to others on his routes through the state. He will not buy any boats, he says, because the fishermen what he needs, and have the skill and years of experience to “know where to go and how to get it.” As he establishes a steady market for seafood in the state, he thinks he can begin to pay better prices for the catches. Presently, skiff fishermen average from S4000 to $6000 a year for their labor. 

“I’m not a crusader,” he says. “I’m trying to support my family.” It makes sense to him to keep his suppliers happy. One reason fishermen are often underpaid is that a popular species of fish or other seafood may be caught in great volume one week, bringing low prices, and not be available at all another week, causing the prices to soar. Wilburn plans to store seasonal catches in his large freezer when they come in a glut; he can stabilize the prices then and deliver to his customers on a regular basis. He will also handle a few specialty items, and thinks that some creative marketing might pay off if customers learn to enjoy products that are considered delicacies elsewhere but are bought for low prices or trashed in this state. 

Recently Wilburn hired two full-time workers for his facility, and plans to employ part-time help as needed, to sort the different sizes and species one from the other and from the ice, and to pack the large catches. At this point he can still choose how big he wants his business to be. Another man who lives off the sea in Swansboro has an even simpler operation. Fitzhugh Littleton and his son supply crabs to a picking plant in “little Washington,” NC, which in turn trucks the meat to Northern markets. Littleton’s business consists of one rectangular grey-wood building, 100 to 150 crab traps and floats, a dock and two small boats. Up the street from his dock is Main Street: a line of shops, a drugstore with an ice-cream counter, a bar, a seafood restaurant. Nearby is a marina full of pleasure boats and yachts. Littleton’s family helped settle Swansboro. His father fished; his mother’s family farmed, and he has crabbed for 30 years, starting his business with $300.“Fishing is a crazy business,” he says, referring to the consumers’ changing tastes. “Used to shovel overboard 300 pounds of shrimp a day because we couldn’t sell them.” People had to acquire the knack for wolfing down these delicacies. 

Littleton is 63. “There’s a few old heads left,” he said. “But the tourists get in the working man’s way. Too many people out there.” He gestures toward the water. “Course, they’ve got the same right out there as we have.” 

On Main Street, Bogue Sound and up and down the coast, the integration of old ways and new people continues. The fishermen and processors have always known each other from community to community, from Wanchese, Rodanthe, Avon, Ocracoke, to Atlantic, Davis, Harker’s Island, to Morehead City, Broad Creek, Swansboro, and south to Sneed’s Ferry, Wilmington, Southport. Crackling shortwave radios on board and on shore carry tales of big hauls, danger and daring, good and bad times. Some of the smaller communities are clannish, set in their ways; others are more cosmopolitan by way of television and tourists. But the fish houses will buy fish from retired professors as well as locals, and they’ll sell to blacks and whites, even yankees and other “foreigners.” 

Roger Jones’ successful fish company has been a boost for the surrounding community as well. He started his business in 1950, but has lived in Broad Creek all his life except for time spent in the service and five years in Florida. He has built trawlers, run a grocery store, worked in shipyards during the war, and fished in Bogue Sound up until 1950. Long ago, his grandfather owned a fish company in Florida. Jones says he has always been on the water. 

Now he takes in the catch from about 40 people who live in Broad Creek. Some of these people make their living in small boats: fishing, shrimping, clamming, crabbing and scalloping in the sound. Jones also owns two trucks and four trawlers, two of which he built himself; the other two were built by local people. 

Refrigerated trucks arrive on schedule to pick up freshly caught seafood and take it to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk; roughly 40 percent goes to distributors in North Carolina. According to Jones, more isn’t sold in his home state because people buy the quickfrozen fillets delivered from other states to their supermarkets. “Seems as if they save up their appetites (for fresh seafood) to come to the coast and eat it. They could get fresh stuff just as good inland if they wanted.” 

Jones employs four or five full-time workers, and calls on about 25 people in Broad Creek to help when a big catch comes in. “I get in the pick-up truck and go around,” he explains. “And some of them have phones.” These part-time helpers are young and old people, as well as people who have other jobs but want the extra money. 

Roger Jones and his son agree: there is a future in fishing for the young, if they want it. “The fishermen in Bogue Sound range in age from about 22 to 65. The younger people don’t take to it as much when they can make more money elsewhere. It was born in a lot of folks, though, to love to be independent. It’s a thrill to pursue the fish, always looking for one of those big catches. It’s a challenge to out-maneuver the fish, to capture them.” One fisherman, scoffing at those who go after clams, said, “Clams, they just lie there. You have to outsmart the fish.” And an energetic young man who is running a fish house in Ocracoke said, “I could have gone to work for the park service, but I want to be my own boss.” It’s a feeling echoed by others in the NC fishing industry. 

The breed of fisherman may be changing, but it is surviving. Jones estimates a third or even a half of the young men in his community are continuing the tradition of making their living off the sea. Some work on trawlers like Miss Maxine which requires a captain and two crew. Others run fish companies or operate their own small boats. (The cost for a 22-to-25 foot boat, built by local people, equipped for year-round catches with fish net, scallops dredges, shrimp trawls, clam facilities and a gasoline engine, ranges from $8,000 to $12,000.) 

These independent investments and businesses continue despite trends toward specialization and large-scale production in other industries and agriculture. Changes are underway, however. Alvah Ward, a seafood industries consultant with the state government (see box), says, “We must do for the fisherman what the farmer has had done for him through the agricultural extension program.” The land-grant college program, as well as federal, state and industry research-and-development efforts, has helped turn agriculture into agribusiness. Development of expensive machines, hybrids, chemicals and new techniques has supplemented and maintained the economies-of-scale philosophy nurtured in industry, government and university offices. Obviously, small farmers cannot compete with corporations that control all phases (supply, production, processing, marketing of food crops) for the sake of lowcost efficiency — but while food prices do not decrease, quality does. And lost to those who once farmed for a living is a certain individual pride as “better jobs” turn out to be shifts in the local mill or a journey northward. 

Many policy makers and investors maintain that independent fishermen and small companies are destined for extinction anyway in decades to come, so research money and incentives are going to those who need them the least. It seems likely that several large companies on the NC coast will upset the long-standing marketing practices, the individually arranged trucking routes and flexible work patterns. Their arrival will undermine the foundations of existing diverse cultures of fishing communities. 

But for now, after the initial investment for the boat, gear, icehouse or whatever, NC fishermen are ready for the hot and cold weather, back-breaking and sometimes dangerous work that is fishing. They must be flexible to deal with an erratic market, to decide against an inside, “secure” job — diverse economic opportunities of the community are their only security, and the weather, water and fluctuations of nature are their boss. On the North Carolina coast, many people still like things that way. And so far, they can still make that choice.  



“Do for the fisherman what we did for the farmers . . .”


Although Alvah H. Ward Jr. grew up in northeastern North Carolina, on the coast, there is no briny smell about his office. He lives in the state capital, Raleigh, several hours from the nearest body of salt water, and is a seafood industries consultant for the Food Industries Development Section of the NC Department of Natural and Economic Resources. Assured and cool in tie and pastel shirt, surrounded by men in similar clothes in similar office spaces, he talks about NC’s fishing industry — what it is now, what it should become. 

Presently, it is a “status quo” industry which can continue until costs of living, industrial pollution or something else does it in, he says. It has not changed much in 20 years, and probably won’t change for that many more, having reached its “maximum effectiveness. ” 

The fisheries that exist on the sounds, rivers and bays are doing a good job, says Ward, but there should be a thriving offshore fishing industry as well, one that is competitive with foreign fleets. Foreign vessels are reaping the harvests; the recently imposed 200-mile limit will tax those ships’ catches, will require specific permits for species. But without sufficient shore facilities located at deep water ports, without sophisticated gear, fish-finding techniques, large ships and trained fishermen, North Carolina will continue to lag in the large volume fishing that takes place miles from shore. According to Ward, environmental concerns and worries about overfishing have been overemphasized. “We need to stop talking so much about conservation and start talking about efficient utilization of the resource. The government’s new approach is to bring development in proper perspective with environmental concerns. No longer will the tail be wagging the dog in North Carolina. ” 

North Carolina is trying to attract new industry, new money into the domestic fishing industry. Generally, tourism is not a year-round business and cannot sustain the coastal economy; more management training and better jobs are needed for residents of coastal communities — Ward, a middleaged man with silvery hair, speaks deliberately, quietly. “We have to give incentives to industry unless we want to continue giving our resources to Communist fishing industries. 

“Farmers were given opportunities and didn’t ignore them,” says Ward, referring to those who could afford newly developed methods. “After all, a farmer is still a farmer is he’s growing tomatoes for Hunt’s. And a fisherman is still a fisherman if he works for a larger company. ” 

In a few years, Wanchese Harbor will be completed on Roanoke Island in northeastern North Carolina. The nickname for this project, which is costing the state almost $30 million, is “NC’s New Seafood Industrial Park.” Wanchese will become a central location for fishing fleets, processing and shipping facilities; North Carolina is dredging a deep water harbor, building docks, roads, and ocean jetties to protect the inlet, providing utilities, sewage treatment and other services. Sites along the harbor will be available for leasing to privately owned receiving, processing and transportation facilities. Ward says that bids for these spaces are welcome from local people as well as from outside companies. 

But he adds, “We don’t want the kind of shacks (present fish houses) we’ve had on the coast.”