Keeping commercial fishers viable a regional concern


By Holly Audette

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

If coastal communities read this column, they will likely consider it old news. Because the truth is, commercial fishing is an industry largely lost to the inner waterways and an industry that has been in decline on the coast for years.

The reasons are numerous and for those involved in some capacity, be they fishermen, processors, advocacy organizations or environmental groups, those reasons have been identified and continually debated. But for those of us who are neighbors to coastal communities where fewer and fewer of our own immediate neighbors are involved in the industry, we are largely uninformed about the plight of commercial fishing and many know little of its lucrative history. But even away from the coastal community, this region had a rich commercial fishing tradition. I have borrowed heavily from those who recorded this history as I strive to encourage more interest in the plight of commercial fishing.

From “Coastwatch,” a state publication, comes a story published in 2000 about the shad fishing tradition through the eyes of the Byrums, an Edenton family whose ancestors are still our neighbors. Titled “The Fate of a Fishery: Shad and River Herring at the Turn of the 21st Century,” this article explains the historic flush river waters around us and how important they were to so many.

“When North Carolina’s dogwoods bloom, the first shad and herring can’t be far behind, swimming up the rivers to spawn. ... They are all anadromous fish that leave their salty ocean homes to seek spawning grounds in the shallow freshwater creeks where they hatched. ... For generations, riverside communities celebrated this yearly provenance. The returning schools of shad and herring marked the end of each long, hungry winter and brought the promise of spring. Families scooped a year’s worth of fish suppers from the water with nets and baskets of all kinds. Most shad were eaten immediately, as they didn’t cure well with salt, but river herring could keep for a year or more if properly cut and brined.

“In the 1760s, commercial fisheries were established on several of the state’s rivers, and pickled herring were shipped up the coast to Baltimore, New York and Boston; west to the Great Plains; and south to the West Indies. ... Though commercial fishers are occasionally teased with an inexplicably good year, even the best years are nothing like the old days. The highest annual landings for river herring since 1887 came in 1969, with a haul of just under 20 million pounds. By 1990, the total landing was only 1.1 million pounds.

“(Herbert Byrum) ... has been fishing since 1964, when he was still in high school. River herring used to bring in three-quarters of his living. But as herring stocks have dwindled and N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) regulations have become more and more stringent, his take-home pay from the fishery also has dried up. ‘Since 1994, it’s been cut down to just over 20 percent from the restrictions,’ Byrum says. Where he used to catch up to $40,000 worth of herring a year, he now catches $10,000.

“His father, grandfather and great-​grandfather before him were commer​cial fishers. Like them, Byrum expects to keep fishing till he dies — but he doesn’t expect anyone to follow in his footsteps. ‘I’ve enjoyed being a commercial fisherman, but I wouldn’t want my kids to do it,’ he said. ‘They couldn’t survive. Crabbing basically keeps us alive now.’”

Some people are working to help restore the fish stock in our rivers. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife service established the Edenton National Fish Hatchery in 1898. It has six full-time staff and contains over 60 acres of land and 30 acres of water. It is an expensive process and with so much foreign competition and other obstacles, it is hard to imagine many remaining well employed fishing these traditional fish.

Perhaps you never knew of this industry and its traditions here and how it has largely been lost to us in this region’s river communities. But perhaps we can rally to the coastal commercial fishing industry neighbors and be part of the insistence the same is not lost there. We rally to preserve family farming. The rural nature of our region makes traditional industries worthy of investment. We can walk and chew gum. Pursue modern new industry that needs acreage we still have available and insist that investment in tradition pays too.

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