We pull out of the parking lot at the Carolina Beach market just as the sky is beginning to lighten. It’s the last full week of winter and the morning chill wraps itself around us as we load our belongings in the truck.
On our way to a NC Catch Summit (more about that below) in Nags Head, we wind our way up the coast on a road all too familiar to Seaview Crab Company’s lead buyer, Craig Reece.
“Our trucks come up this way every week, getting seafood from all these fishing towns and hamlets up the coast,” he says.
It takes us five hours to reach Wanchese, a small fishing village on the Outer Banks where daily life revolves around the rise and fall of the ocean tides and selling seafood is the life’s blood of the local economy.
We stop at Etheridge Seafood Company – a family run fish house –where a cadre of toughly hewn local fishermen venture miles offshore daily in search of the sea’s bounty. The wintry windy weather has made this day impossible for fishing, so all the boats are moored at the dock.
As we round the corner of the building, a blast of salty sea spray blows in our faces, its briny tongue laced with a slight taste of fish.
Inhaling the wondrous – and to us – welcoming odor of the glorious fish-laden ocean, we gaze at the boats floating beside the pier before climbing the stairs to the company’s offices.
Upstairs we visit with Mark, a local fisherman who tells us stories of fishing throughout the years, from the icy winters of 1977 through storms and changing weather patterns.
The greatest threat yet, he says, is from regulations written by people who have no knowledge of the cyclical nature of the sea and its creatures.
Etheridge Seafood Company has a long seafood heritage. The boats are in because, while it looks deceptively calm at the moment, the winds are whipping through the area. “If the population of a fish decreases, they automatically think it’s from overfishing,” he says. “And they limit the catch.”
He explains that many times the dip in fish population is not from overfishing, but is simply a natural occurrence as fish move in and out of an area over time.
Later, at our summit, we meet Dewey Hemilright, a well-known commercial fisherman who sells his catch directly to Etheridge Seafood Company.
Each week, weather permitting, he navigates his boat – the Tar Baby – through the Oregon Inlet and out into the Atlantic Ocean. Though Hemilright acknowledges that the fishing life is difficult, he says that he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I grew up here but I didn’t start fishing until I was eighteen,” he says. “But once I started, I never wanted to stop.” Looking outside toward the ocean, he predicts a rough overnight storm, but is confident that fishing conditions will improve the next day.
After we leave Etheridge’s, we make our way over to O’Neal’s Seafood Harvest which is just around the bend. Trucks are being loaded with seafood, but Ashley O’Neal takes time to come over and talk about the fishing business for a few minutes.
All the talk about seafood has made us hungry, so we decide to eat at O’Neal’s Restaurant – where we have a basketful of lightly breaded golden brown shrimp. The flavor pops in our mouths and we scarf the tasty shellfish down.
After lunch, it’s time to meet up with the rest of the Seaview crew in Nags Head. We’re all here for the NC Catch summit and for the next two days we will be immersed in topics relating to the seafood industry.
The NC Catch organization, along with other local Catch groups, works to strengthen the state’s seafood economy through promotion and education.
Our group from Seaview joins people from other markets, organizations and educational institutions to figure out ways to support a robust seafood culture and to promote commercial fishing as a sustainable profession – deeply rooted in our state’s heritage and essential for our future.
We have a chance to chat briefly with anthropologist Barbara Garrity-Blake about her work on the Carolina Coastal Voices project. This is an oral history project about the maritime heritage of the Outer Banks and Down East region of coastal North Carolina. It’s part of a larger initiative called Saltwater Connections. (To hear these ‘voices” go to www.carolinacoastalvoices.com)
Once the summit is over, we head back home, our minds turning with all the information we absorbed from the various speakers.
Seaview spent the time at the conference because – like so many others across the state – we care about the food we sell to our customers every day. We want it to be fresh, good and sustainable, so we’ll continue to travel the fishing villages of our state, attend conferences and stay involved so that we can keep moving seafood forward.