If you’ve ever visited or lived near the Carolina coast, you’ve probably cracked open a crab leg, sampled sautéed scallops or eaten oysters on the half-shell – all thanks to the state’s thriving aquaculture industry. But on the heels of the national farm-to-table trend, more people want to know the source of their seafood, which has opened the doors for a new generation of working fishermen, such as the owners of Seaview Crab Co. in Wilmington.
After graduating from college, brothers Sam and Joe Romano and their childhood friend, Nathan King, started selling crabs wholesale.
“We really liked the idea of creating your own schedule and having the freedom of working on the water,” Sam Romano says.
However, a lack of places to sell their product prompted the trio to move into selling directly to the public – and expand their product line. Seaview Crab Co. networks with other fishermen and suppliers to offer customers “everything North Carolina can produce.”
“We got into crabbing for the simplicity,” Romano says. But the business turned out to be more complicated than anticipated. “We realized we had to build a company with a lot of moving parts.”
Soon, the company had brick-and-mortar locations in south and midtown Wilmington, as well as weekend open-air markets in Spout Springs and Sanford, with a staff that ranges from 20 to 30 part- and full-time workers. Seaview also has a shipping operation that provides delivery to all of North Carolina, southern Virginia and most of South Carolina.
“Finding the price point that works has been a challenge, but it’s got a lot of potential,” Romano says. “North Carolina seafood has brand recognition all over the country.”
Currently, King handles accounting, bookkeeping and data collection. Joe Romano serves as operations manager, dealing with markets. And Sam Romano does the crabbing and manages shipping and maintenance. Flexibility allows them to change roles when needed.
OUT ON THE WATER
Though the networking and office work is necessary, much of the work occurs out on the water. It takes four to six hours to check their 100 to 200 crab pots, which are placed in different locations based on factors such as seasonality and “gut feeling,” Sam Romano says. Crabs tend to prefer rivers in warm weather and deeper ocean water when it’s cold.
From May until November, he crabs five to seven days a week, with times dictated by the tide. “Sometimes I’m working into the night, sometimes I’m working dawns,” Romano says.
According to 2014 statistics from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, the state’s wild-caught seafood generated $94 million annually. Aquaculture, or the cultivation and farming of seafood, was worth about $58 million during that time. The state’s aquaculture products include trout, catfish, hybrid striped bass, tilapia, freshwater prawn, crawfish, sturgeon (for caviar), clams, oysters, shellfish and soft-shell crabs.
“Hard blue crabs are the state’s No. 1 wild-caught product,” says John M. Aydlett, seafood marketing specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. He notes that the state counts 279 crab shedding permit holders. Increasing interest in shellfish production in the state continues to grow.
“In the future, there is the possibility that shellfish mariculture production could surpass wild-caught shellfish,” Aydlett says. “There is definitely growth potential within this sector.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Pounds of hard-shell blue crab harvested in North Carolina
Production value of hard-shell blue crab
Value of North Carolina’s farmed seafood industry
Value of the state’s wild-caught seafood industry
Source: N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, 2014 (most recent data available)
Seaview Crab Co. is part of that trend with a 16-acre oyster lease, which refers to an area of water leased from the state for oyster cultivation. There are three ways to grow oysters: move juvenile oysters in, then grow to market size; pile shell to promote oyster attachment; or plant oyster seed produced in a lab in plastic mesh cages and grow. The Wilmington company’s leased area is particularly suited for growing oysters due to nutrients and less tidal movement. “We learned the hard-knock way (about oyster leasing),” Romano says, but they now have plans for expansion.
Aydlett cites the local food movement as the most important trend affecting North Carolina seafood consumption. “People want to know where their food is coming from,” he says.
Sam and his co-owners understand the need to engage consumers. They use social media extensively to share fresh-catch availability and educate customers about seafood.
“We also do a weekly email where we tell people what’s new,” he says. All of this helps draw in customers.
“Your traditional fish market is a little more rough around the edges,” Romano says. “We teach our fishmongers to connect customers with different products. Instead of just trying to sell, we do a lot of free samples, trying to get people to try something they wouldn’t normally. We try to push products that are abundant, local and maybe not as popular, like popeye mullet.”
The company brand also includes such practices as recycling discarded fish ice to water a garden.
The folks behind Seaview Crab Co. enjoy their role in promoting and selling the state’s seafood.
“It’s a great product that we can stand behind,” Romano says. “Seafood is good for your health, and it’s good for the coastal community. The business is very challenging, but it’s also rewarding.”
– Nancy Dorman-Hickson
May 25, 2016