Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
Before you go …
If you like what you are reading and believe in independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism like ours—journalism the way it should be—please contribute to keep us going. Reporting like this isn’t free to produce and we cannot do this alone. Thank you!
Editor’s note: This article is part 2 of 5 of the series Changing Tides, which was produced in part through the support of the Pulitzer Center.
The alarm goes off at 3 a.m., and Cole Gibbs, the 21-year-old first mate of the commercial fishing vessel the Salvation, crawls out of bed and pulls a “Make America Fish Again” cap over his shaggy strawberry-blond mop. He hops in his car and drives more than an hour from his home in Elizabeth City to Wanchese, a close-knit fishing community on Roanoke Island.
Despite the early mornings and long hours, Gibbs loves the work. After several stints on large commercial fishing boats, he prefers to spend his time aboard the Salvation, a 32-foot daytrip boat fishing the Atlantic off the Outer Banks.
Gibbs saves the money he earned, hoping to one day buy his own boat, making him a rarity in a business where few young men or women want to captain their own commercial fishing vessels.
“Very few young guys (are) getting into this because they don’t see a future in it,” said the Salvation’s captain and owner, Charlie Locke, who lives in Wanchese, near Manteo.
The commercial industry for wild-caught seafood off the North Carolina coast faces extreme pressure, as Locke sees it.
Commercial fishermen in North Carolina and elsewhere perceive a high degree of regulatory risk, unnerving changes in fish stocks and other environmental forces, and risks associated with their supply chain, such as the price they’ll get for their catch and whether they’ll find a buyer.
Shifting environmental conditions are a concern, but they’re affecting an industry that’s already stressed. At best, it’s a volatile industry, impacted by the persistent forces of weather, the market, international competition and waterfront development.
Scientists are also alarmed by the volatile impact of a changing climate on fisheries, a trend that Locke has observed over the last decade. It complements the deep uncertainty that already envelops the commercial fishing industry in North Carolina.
“No doubt something is going on,” Locke said. “The water is warming. You don’t need to understand rocket science to figure that out.”
A changing climate may not only impact Locke’s living but also what North Carolina consumers, who love to eat wild-caught fish, find on their menus, at the farmers markets and on grocery shelves. Beyond the people in the boats, small communities along the coast depend on a thriving industry to support fishermen and the working waterfront.
Declines in water quality, resulting from upstream sources and aggravated by a warming climate in the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, threaten to disrupt key fishing grounds for blue crabs and other valuable species.
Dare County, largely driven by Wanchese, has the highest seafood volume and value of any North Carolina county: nearly 14 million pounds of seafood valued at $20 million in 2019, according to the state’s Marine Fisheries Division.
The economy of Wanchese, which is just 12 miles from Nags Head, operates mostly outside the massive Outer Banks tourist economy.
While the towns and communities of the Outer Banks prosper, the residents of the small community rely on the uncertain ebb and flow of commercial fishing and the jobs it supports at fish houses and industries connected to fishing and its supply chain.
Culturally speaking, commercial fishing also defines a way of life.
On a recent overcast morning in July, Locke is clad in a yellow shirt, rubber boots and brown shorts imprinted with tiny sharks.
Typically, he motors from the harbor six days a week before sunrise. His plan today includes dropping his lines at several submerged shipwrecks near Cape Hatteras, where schools of amberjack tend to congregate.
The spot marks the confluence of tropical water from the Gulf Stream with a countercurrent of chilly sea, transported on the Labrador Current from the North Atlantic.
Scientists have discovered that climate change is altering the speed of the Gulf Stream. The weakened flow may lead to a change in the distribution of certain species.
Recent scientific research showed that summer flounder, or fluke, are leaving Carolina waters and heading north — a shift affecting the large trawl boats from Beaufort.
Over time, the average catch location of the light brown flatfish with whitish spots moved north. Now, most catches are made off the New Jersey coast, forcing commercial fishermen on longer voyages to capture their quota.
Summer flounder also depend on the estuarine waters west and northwest of Cape Hatteras, plus the tidal creeks of the Core Sound. The marsh and submerged vegetation of estuarine waters are important nursery grounds for juvenile summer flounder — a habitat now threatened by climate change.
The changes aren’t all bad news for 47-year-old Locke, who has made his living on a boat since he was 18. Spanish mackerel populations have shifted north into Carolina waters, providing a potential windfall for Locke and his crew.
After several stops that yield nothing, they find success at Diamond Shoals, 9 miles east of Cape Hatteras beneath a behemoth, rusting structure that once served as a rescue station.
Despite the strong current of the Gulf Stream that draws the vessel from the school of fish, Locke and his first mate, Gibbs, reel in several dozen amberjacks on hooks and lines from the ocean that, in the Gulf Stream, shows a remarkable purple hue.
A mechanical reel hauls in the silvery fish, which must exceed 36 inches in length to keep, a regulation set by the Southern Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
At the stern, Locke and his first mate are separated by a pool of live bait — hand-sized pinfish, spot and other fish Locke captured yesterday. As the catch reaches the surface, he jabs a circle hook into the fish and hauls it over the gunwale, onto the deck. Locke grabs its gills, removes the hook and deposits the jack in an icy container.
By noon, the fishermen meet their 1,200-pound legal limit under federal rules, since Locke is fishing beyond 3 nautical miles from the coast, putting him in federal waters. Locke estimates that he’ll fetch $2.50 per pound, which exceeds the expense of his fuel and labor. It’s a good day.
In fact, the last two years of fishing were his best ever.
Though Locke acknowledges the existence of climate change and its impact on the water he fishes, to him, it’s not an existential threat.
“Climate change isn’t as big an issue for me as … regulation,” he said, referring to state and federal regulators that manage fishing quotas, rules and regulations.
“What we’re finding as fishermen is that (regulators) take, but they hardly ever give back. That’s my fear. I’ll fight tooth and nail not to lose something because I know how hard it is to get it back.”
Nevertheless, he sees an ally in the science community and is a willing participant on federal and state fishing commissions.
“I’d rather have my voice be heard,” he said.
“Scientists are looking at computers and graphs. What we are seeing on the water doesn’t always jibe with what the computer model spits out. If you can take what they know and what I know and come together, you can usually get some stuff figured out.”
Indeed, some good news exists for commercial fishing. Fisheries stocks are, generally speaking, healthy. Overfishing is not a huge issue, said fishery management specialist Brandon Muffley of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. However, “things are changing out on the water,” he said. “Some species are moving into new territories and expanding their range.”
The MAC, an independent government agency that manages fisheries, produces an annual “state of the ecosystem report” that gives a risk assessment so officials can manage marine resources within its jurisdiction from North Carolina to New York.
North Carolina is a member of both the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic councils.
The report this year included a growing body of research that social scientists and economists conducted to examine the vulnerability of coastal communities that rely on fishing, Muffley said.
“There are all of those pressures going on on our coastal waterfront,” he said.
“If fisheries are vulnerable, then so are the communities. We’re trying to generate the science to understand how our communities and fishermen are preparing for those changes and how well they are set up to adapt to them. We want to inform the council about what they need to be thinking about as they make management decisions.”
In practice, it’s not just the science of fisheries that drives fishery management decisions. In Wanchese, for example, housing is a problem, particularly for workers in the industry. Locke’s first mate, Cole, is unable to find affordable housing in or near the harbor. In general, finding reliable labor on a commercial vessel isn’t easy.
One model to estimate meaningful social factors is a “reliance” index number that estimates the importance of commercial and recreational fishing to coastal communities.
Muffley explained that more socially and economically vulnerable communities face more challenges in their ability to respond and adapt to changing environmental factors, such as threats from severe storms, changes in sea level or changes in fishery productivity.
According to the index, it’s no surprise that Locke’s home, Wanchese, is heavily dependent on commercial and recreational fishing.
One of the variables contained in the reliance index is the size of boats. In Wanchese, the majority of vessels are less than 50 feet. Though their range is limited, smaller boats, such as the vessel operated by Locke, tend to catch a broader range of species and are more adaptable to changing fish stocks.
Locke’s 32-foot ship, the Salvation, is a day-tripper. Built in 2005, its hull is made of juniper and powered by an outboard Honda motor that he replaces every two years.
Few amenities are on board. The septic system is a 5-gallon bucket. Yet, the crew can catch a range of species using an assortment of gear and techniques.
The index also suggests fishermen in Wanchese aren’t reliant on a single species, thus they are more agile in adapting to changing environmental and market conditions. For instance, some communities depend on a single valuable species, such as shrimp or blue crabs.
The stability of commercial fishing in Wanchese also depends on future talent. “We have a graying of the fleet,” said Barry Nash, a seafood technology and marketing specialist of North Carolina Sea Grant.
N.C. Sea Grant, based at N.C. State University, provides research, education and outreach opportunities relating to current issues affecting the North Carolina coast and its communities.
“We have people that got into this industry 30 or 40 years ago, but we don’t have people coming in behind them,” Nash said. “It’s a tough job and expensive to maintain a boat.”
In 1995, 5,494 commercially licensed fishermen worked North Carolina’s coasts. By 2011, that had declined to 3,244, with only 2,535 in 2019.
In addition, the supply chain that Locke and other commercial fishermen depend on to purchase and deliver his catch to buyers and consumers is also fragmented and lacks coordination in large portions of the state.
Wholesale seafood sales
The effects of climate change don’t only apply to the waters. The number of wholesale seafood pack facilities, known as fish houses, is also at a historic low, according to Nash.
In 2001, according to N.C. Sea Grant, 130 fish houses operated, but that dropped to 83 by 2011.
Although a current count of fish houses isn’t available, the number is stable, according to Nash of N.C. Sea Grant. Many fish houses shuttered following the 2008-09 financial crisis, Nash said.
As real estate prices accelerated following the crash, some houses sold out. However, he said, the economic crisis eliminated excess capacity. Those that remained are in it for the long haul, he predicts.
Fish houses depend on steady consumer demand, but their success also hinges on a reliable supply of wild-caught seafood.
Locke and the fish house to which he’s aligned have a symbiotic relationship. The house provides Locke with ice and dock space. Locke unloads his catch exclusively at the fish house.
With his limit caught, Locke unloads his catch at O’Neal’s Sea Harvest in Wanchese, where it’s weighed and packed in 100-pound-unit cardboard boxes crammed with ice.
Ashley O’Neal, a former college football player, and his brother Colby took over the operations of the family business when his father, Benny, retired in 2016. His sister, in-laws and children also pitch in.
The business is on the Wanchese Harbor in the Wanchese Marine Industrial Park. The state established the park, devoted to seafood processing and the fishing industry. Though the park appears to be thriving, what’s gained a foothold here is an extensive boat-building industry. Enormous recreational charter boats in various stages of construction and boat storage facilities provide evidence.
On a recent July afternoon, O’Neal operated a forklift hoisting pallets of Spanish mackerel, bigeye tuna and live blue crabs in baskets on a truck bound for New York. O’Neal said 90% of his supply is bound out of state. The rest of his stock is delivered to a handful of local restaurants and storefronts.
O’Neal’s business has adapted to the cycles of seafood processing by opening a popular restaurant on its site. However, he wouldn’t push his kids into the business because there is too much uncertainty, he said.
“There are limits and quotas on everything,” said O’Neal, who is suspicious of commercial landing data collected by scientists and regulators.
“There needs to be regulation, but it needs to go both ways. Whenever you lose your rights to catch something, you’ll never get it back. It has to be a give and take. Now, it’s just take.”
Demand is strong
While volatility exists in the industry, North Carolina consumers crave wild seafood harvested from the coast. Among their favorites are shrimp, flounder, scallops, oysters and tuna, according to a recent survey conducted by N.C. Sea Grant.
In all, North Carolina’s wild-caught seafood contributes $300 million annually to the state’s economy.
“The demand is there,” Nash said. Despite growth in aquaculture, he doesn’t see the strong demand for wild-caught fish from North Carolina fishermen evaporating
The wild cards, of course, are the unpredictable inventories of wild catch. Nash’s best guess is a supply chain that sources both farm-grown and wild-caught fish.
The supply chain will require more coordination among independent producers in the industry to consider ways of moving product from the coast inland, he said.
Most consumers purchase seafood at grocery stores and restaurants, but farmers markets and other retail markets are increasingly important. Sam Kosik sells directly to consumers at six fish markets far from the coast in the Asheville area and opened a storefront in March 2020.
“We plan by what our vendors have,” Kosik said. “Seasons on shrimp are much shorter. They go in and out. They aren’t there, or the price has gone up to the roof. We have to be able to flex in one direction or another.”
Ultimately, a smoother east-to-west distribution network will aid fishermen and fish houses by smoothing out shortages and surpluses at the dock.
That may hinge on the ability of fishermen, such as Locke, to adapt to an altered ocean. That may not be easy.
Winners and losers
The commercial fishermen who have survived, Locke said, are “either on their way out or doing really well.”
“There’s not really a middle ground,” he said. “So many people, especially the older guys who had it so good in the heydays of the ’70s and ’80s, have a hard time adjusting because they feel like they’ve lost so much.”
Despite his gregariousness and charm, Locke prefers the more solitary work of commercial fishing than working as a recreational fishing guide.
Locke has maintained an edge by using social media and developing a brand. He mentors young fishermen and sustains a strong relationship with N.C. Sea Grant. He also volunteers on numerous advising councils.
He recently spent a week on the water working with shark researchers. Locke is entrepreneurial and knowledgeable about the science and the regulations he faces. He knows his stuff, and he loves to fish.
The name of his boat transmits his ethos: “Fishing has been the one constant in my life,” Locke said. “It’s my salvation.”
“To make it in this game you have to stay ahead,” he said. “I learned early in life not to focus on what’s behind you. If you focus on the rearview window, you’re going to get in a wreck.
“I’m not tooting my horn, but I do think things out. I have a plan in my head.”
Uncharted, however, is how Locke and others in this volatile industry will navigate the future obstacles of a mounting environmental shock already in motion.
Photo essay: A day in the life of an NC commercial fisherman
Photos by Mark Darrough for Carolina Public Press