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Commercial fishers' plight needs more attention

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By Holly Audette
Columnist

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

I’ve lived in northeastern North Carolina for almost two decades now, and I am ashamed I know very little about the fishing industry. Why am I ashamed? Because as a region, fishing has a very big impact on our economy, tourism and recreation.

I remember a few years after I moved here we had a season with a lot of crabs in Elizabeth City’s harbor.  I was amazed at all the folks who lined up shoulder to shoulder to bring them in. I have Canadian relatives who were heavily involved in the sardine industry in Saint John, New Brunswick and I have vivid childhood memories of visiting there and smelling the heavy salt in the air and eating bags of dried dulse (seaweed) like popcorn. The sense of community in that fishing village was so evident. Each day my grandmother would walk me to the outdoor markets and everyone greeted each other and inquired about family, celebration and sorrow. It never failed some treat was offered me compliments of the locals’ generosity.

I’m delighted to be just a short drive to the Outer Banks and have loved learning about the fishing on both the Inner and Outer Banks. The history of shad and herring fishing and the famous shad boat is well represented at Museum of the Albemarle. Connections in our region between inland water locations and ocean communities have existed for a long time.

Despite this, the struggles of the fishing industry in our region have not seemed to capture the attention like say, transportation issues have. Bridge and highway needs band us together with neighboring counties as we forge plans for greater economic opportunity. Agriculture also seems to unite our interests. But in my experience, fishing, especially commercial fishing, seems to be a them-versus-us consideration.

I was hopeful those representing this region in the House and Senate would work together to address, promote and nurture our vital interests. But state Sen. Bill Cook often aligned with the very senators who worked against our region’s interests. Senators like Sen. Bill Rabon, who promoted tolling our ferries and diverting Mid-Currituck Bridge funding to Wilmington, and Sen. Harry Brown, who proposed a sales tax formula which would have cost Dare County dearly.

Despite a lot of lip service to the plight of those working the waterways, it seems very little has changed regarding the  dredging of inlets, beach nourishment and the farce of more strictly defining commercial fishing. In 2015, Cook’s legislative aide, Jordan Hennessey, speaking about Senate Bill 160, which was to advance a remedy for inlet problems, including funding problems, told the Coastal Review, “the bill is likely to pass the Senate within weeks, and ... will be supported in the House.” Poof. The bill seems to have disappeared. Let’s hope yesterday’s elections bring the fishing industry more than disappointed expectations.

The real experts, folks who work the waterways every day, say the long-term remedy needs to be the building of jetties, rock structures that will address the inlets refilling with sand. More southern coastal areas have jetties, yet state law currently prohibits more. Senator Brown shrugged his shoulders explaining this to Topsail residents, who also struggle with dredging and want a more permanent solution. So what prohibits Senate Majority Leader Brown, in alliance with coastal regions without the jetty remedy, from proposing a change to the law that prohibits them?

If our region could hear the plight of our neighbors, who for generations have made a living on our waterways and who struggle with both financial considerations and significant safety concerns, we might see them as we see our family farmers: As people in need of our concerted support to preserve their way of life and provide the sustainable products we all live on.

I am going to spend a column or two exploring our waterways, the industries of our region that depend on them, and the trials of trying to maintain a generational way of life. I want you to get to know the stories of fishermen and their families who try to help them survive — people like Ches Tyson, Billy Gorham, Greg Mayer and Rick and Martha Caton. Their voices have moved me to action and I hope as you get to know them, you will join them to make their case for survival.

Holly Audette is a small-business owner active in political and civic causes.

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