By Liz Biro
Published: Friday, September 11, 2009 at 8:43 a.m.
Although bound to a merciless tide clock directing what some observers fear is a dying North Carolina commercial fishing industry, crabbers Nathan King and brothers Joe and Sam Romano hardly stop smiling.
During a rare break between managing their fledgling Wilmington seafood market and the next high-tide crab run — near noon on another scorching summer day — the tired business partners talk shop at their Seaview Crab Company on Carolina Beach Road.
Rather than lament water pollution, low prices, declining seafood stocks and too many regulations — constant industry stressors – the enthusiastic trio discusses new markets, their budding Web sector, and the next time, if ever, they can fish together.
As King says of the business, “It’s a ride.” The work is hard, the odds tough, but three years after applying their college degrees to full-time crabbing, none of the men want off the Tilt-A-Whirl.
“That’s the one thing that draws me to it, the challenge,” Joe Romano says. “We can make it when others say we can’t.”
Romano shelved his English master’s degree and comfortable University of North Carolina Wilmington teaching job to ply shallow backwaters many fishermen find too aggravating. Arriving at high tide, he carefully maneuvers a 19-foot skiff around oyster and grass beds to reach the team’s numerous crab pots.
Back at Seaview, Sam Romano, 27, an environmental studies graduate, handles inventory. He continuously solicits other watermen for fish and shrimp to join live crabs in Seaview’s retail coolers.
King, 26, with a master’s in naval architecture/ocean engineering, concentrates on sales. Besides working the market, he spends weekends manning a Fayetteville roadside stand like the one that spawned Seaview.
Childhood friends from Virginia Beach, Va., the trio’s crabbing career began after Sam Romano in 2002 entered UNCW. During school, he worked at a seafood house but preferred crabbing, a job the Romano brothers watched their father do during summer months when Dad wasn’t’ teaching school.
In 2005, Sam Romano convinced brother Joe, then a real estate broker, to join him in the Port City. King spent college summers living and crabbing with the Romanos. The pals loved the water, the physical labor and charting their destinies.
The next year, all three decided the adventure was worth pursuing full-time.
“It was really an ideal business that you could start from the ground with simply 50 pots,” King says.
“You just catch all the crabs and sell them,” Sam Romano adds.
Quickly, things got complicated.
Crabs flooded the market in 2006, dramatically reducing prices and convincing King and the brothers to directly court consumers rather than depend on wholesalers. That year, they began selling seafood from a truck parked on Carolina Beach Road.
As the business grew, the threesome eyed Seaview’s location, a humble building that housed a seafood market/tackle shop. When the operation went up for sale in December, they wasted little time signing the dotted line.
Seaview, which opened March 27, devours time, energy and money. To keep costs down, the men remain roommates. Each is single.
“We don’t have much of a social life,” Joe Romano says laughing.
Seventy-to-80 hour weeks leave them dead at day’s end but not too exhausted to think. The tech-savvy group advertises their seafood on Craigslist. They e-mail a newsletter to customers, maintain a My Space page and are arranging Twitter and Facebook spots.
In the little time they can sit down this day, the team ponders its yourpriceseafood.com, an Internet plan born in Sam Romano’s mind after he attended a packed eBay conference and wondered how he could apply the model to seafood sales.
Part auction site, part social network, the infant venture provides fishermen and other seafood industry workers a place to direct-market products and services, as well as trade with each other. Members may list seafood similar to how goods are advertised on eBay and create promotional pages, as Facebook users do. Seaview’s page details the company; a lively video shows the guys crabbing.
Consumers benefit by being able to shop for seafood in their price ranges no matter where they live (Seaview overnights shrimp to an Asheville customer). Plus, sellers must tell buyers where the seafood was caught and how it was harvested, thereby educating the public about fisheries and seasonal catches.
Even with just one member — Seaview, of course — yourpriceseafood.com was among case studies featured at February’s N.C. Seafood Marketing Workshop, staged by N.C. Sea Grant.
“What we wanted to do from the beginning was we were just trying to fish,” Sam Romano says. “But now we’re better off, for North Carolina fisherman and anything really, being marketers.
“I haven’t been able to go crabbing pretty much this whole summer.”
Much as they love crabbing, the men envision leaving the back-breaking work for an Internet business that will slide them into early retirement.
“I don’t think any of us really thought we’d be doing this right now,” Joe Romano says. “This whole business… everything a lot of times is against you, whether you’re a fishermen or selling seafood or whatever. It’s a struggle all along.
“Each struggle has kind of got us more into it. We kind of reach a brick wall and we’re kind of, well, let’s innovate.”
Yet the men don’t consider themselves new-age fishers. Rather, Sam Romano says, they, as most watermen, are can-do people merely flowing with the tide toward the best catch.
“Fishermen are capable of what we’re talking about, actually more capable than a lot of other different vocations because when you’re fishing you’ve got to be able to change your mindset. If ‘this’ isn’t going on, you’ve got to switch to another thing that does work.
“There’s no, ‘Hey, this is just a crabbing boat.’ ”