Locking Horns with the Future
Though commercial fishing is an uncertain bet, a new generation of Hatteras watermen is willing to take the chance.
The headlines tell the story of an American industry on the brink. Pounded by tightening regulations, escalating expenses, stagnant or declining fish prices and shrinking working waterfronts, the future of commercial fishing seems caught in a seismic wave of uncertainty.
Yet even as old fishermen lament the passing of the industry they have known and loved, a new generation of commercial fishermen has emerged in places like Hatteras Island.
These younger men aren’t afraid to lock horns with the future. They adopt innovative ways to run businesses that provide fresh, wild-caught seafood, and they scale their operations to meet regulatory, environmental and economic challenges.
Jeremy O’Neal is 28 years old and the father of two little girls. He started fishing shortly after graduating from Cape Hatteras Secondary School; he was offered a job as mate on the Miss Megan, a gill net boat working out of Hatteras village.
Last year O’Neal bought his own boat, the Goose, a 25-foot Downeaster that he uses to net Spanish mackerel, bluefish, dogfish, king mackerel, croaker and sea mullet in the Atlantic and in Pamlico Sound.
“I had been wanting a boat for a long time and had been thinking I’d go the big boat way, but then I realized I’d have more options for keeping my expenses lower with a smaller boat that I could always fish by myself,” O’Neal explains, as he threads lead weights onto rope for the gill net he is hanging in a work area under his house in Hatteras village. The Goose is docked behind the house on a canal that is a short run to the inlet.
“It’s all on me, whether I’m successful or not,” he muses, acknowledging that this is the attraction of fishing for a living.
It took a bit of trial and error before O’Neal found his calling as a commercial fisherman. He tried his hand as a mate on a charter boat when he was younger.
“I saw pretty quick that the best mates were storytellers who could keep the customers entertained, but I was only 18 and didn’t have many stories to tell,” he says with a laugh.
While he was a student, he worked at the fish house his father managed, bailing fish out of boats onto conveyor belts and packing them in ice for transport to markets. Like most O’Neals in the village, his father has worked as a fisherman, and he fished with Jeremy one winter on the Miss Megan.
“I’ve known most of the older fishermen here since I was a wee little fellow,” O’Neal says. “They’re all great guys but sometimes they are pessimistic, and I try to maintain a positive outlook. I think that’s important.”
The grim statistics — commercial fishing landings in North Carolina for 2011 decreasing 6 percent, fishing trips dropping 11 percent, and a 36 percent reduction in the number of the North Carolina fish houses over the past decade — don’t escape O’Neal’s attention, but he’s confident that the ingenuity honed by working in a dynamic environment will hold him and other island fishermen in good stead as they confront future challenges.
Darrin McBride, 26, also knows what it is like to fish with a father. Unlike the O’Neals, though, the McBrides don’t have a long line of commercial fishermen on their family tree.
McBride’s father, Bob, arrived on Hatteras Island with a surfboard and a hammer in his hands and “close to a college degree” more than 30 years ago. A native of Michigan, Bob was banging nails on the island when a chance opportunity as a mate on a croaker boat hooked him on fishing.
Now the two McBrides fish a 25-foot boat named John 3:16 in Pamlico Sound. They set crab pots in early spring and again in the fall, and in the summer and fall they fish pound nets — stationary nets assembled on wood stakes that are not easily set or dismantled. Hurricanes and nor’easters pose considerable risk to pound nets during the fall flounder season.
“You’re flirting with the devil every year with the storms,” the younger McBride says.
In addition to flounder, the McBrides catch Spanish mackerel, gray trout, sheepshead, bluefish, spadefish and ribbonfish, as well as threadfin herring, popular in Asian markets, and horseshoe crabs that are used in medical research.
Darrin McBride has worked with his father since he was a young boy, often combining fishing with restaurant work. He didn’t plan to fish after he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a degree in business administration, but working in the family business and the outdoor life feel right to him.
The Frisco native says what he learned in college reinforced what he learned from his father about being able to gauge how best to allocate money and time in fishing.
“The goal is to never sit still and go backwards, and to keep something coming in all the time, whether that’s a little money or big money,” he explains.
McBride sees positive changes taking place in the public perception of fishermen, due in part to social media and reality TV shows about commercial fishing.
“It’s also trendy now to eat organic and natural foods so that has elevated the status of fishermen,” he adds, noting that media attention on the federal government’s scant inspection of imported seafood for chemical contamination and decomposition has heightened consumer awareness.
But he readily admits that the regulatory uncertainty surrounding fisheries is damaging and serves as a disincentive for young people to invest in the business.
“I often think maybe I should be doing something else so I can do it 20 years from now,” McBride says, “but I enjoy being with my father, working outdoors, the lifestyle, and take pride in what I do.”
Nathan Everett is the first commercial fisherman in his family.
The 27-year-old native of Pinetown, N.C., got into fishing as a way to avoid working in tobacco.
“I was 12 years old and I ate lunch in the summer at my grandmama’s,” he says. “My cousins who were a little older than me would join us after they’d finished priming tobacco. That didn’t look like a good job to me, so I decided I better find something else.”
Everett knew a kid from Bible school who was working on a crabbing boat on the Pamlico River but would be staying with family in another state for the summer. Everett talked to the boat captain and was hired to replace his friend.
“The jellyfish were horrible that year and I really thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but the captain stuck with me,” he says. “I was paid $75 a day and that was big money for a kid back then.”
By the time he was 15, Everett had his own boat and enough money to start his own crabbing operation with 150 pots. After high school graduation and a stint working on an assembly line, he landed a job running a thousand-pot operation in Albemarle Sound. Several winter seasons working with seasoned Wanchese gill netters prompted Everett to build the 32-foot Reel Busy in 2009. This year his stake in the business grew when he bought a 42-foot boat in Engelhard.
Everett has fished out of Hatteras for three years and credits two older local fishermen with helping him ease into the fleet and the community. Wedged between the ocean and the broad Pamlico Sound, the island offers a fishing diversity not found in locations across the sound.
“But options also can starve a man to death in this business sometimes,” he cautions. “You have to stay focused.”
Everett says he has noticed that commercial fishing maintains its economic stability better than many other businesses when the economy heads south.
“People have to eat,” he says.
And Americans eat nearly 5 billion pounds of fish and shellfish each year, according to NOAA. Everett sees a pretty bright future for commercial fishing if new market opportunities open.
Like O’Neal and McBride, Everett hopes to be a commercial fisherman forever. All three men agree on the value of keeping a traditional industry alive, but they also agree that seafood harvested by commercial fishermen has an important place in solving modern health and food security issues.
This new generation of fishermen sees promise in local seafood branding initiatives like Outer Banks Catch and Ocracoke Fresh that teach consumers about seafood seasonality. About 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. One of the challenges in reducing the reliance on imports is redirecting appetites from shrimp, tuna and salmon, the most popular imports, toward less well-known seafood.
“We have fish like dogfish that are healthy, where regulators are increasing harvest limits,” says Everett, “and we could better capitalize on those if we find ways to develop new markets and the infrastructure to get those fish to consumers.”
story by SUSAN WEST
photographs by DANIEL PULLEN