MORE HEAD – Commercial fishermen in Carteret County have typically landed between 5 million and 9 million pounds of fish and shellfish per year for the past 15 years, including 7.4 million pounds in 2020, the latest year available.
NORTH CAROLINA — Although the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the state could be sued…
But there’s been a long stretch, including as recently as the early 2000s, when those numbers hit £60m-80m or more in a year.
The county of Carteret, and especially Beaufort, were then different… very different. In Beaufort, in particular, the aroma of processed menhaden regularly wafted in the wind. Many, probably most, didn’t like the smell. But many others called it “the smell of money”.
That all changed in 2005 when Beaufort Fisheries, the last remaining menhaden processing plant in the county and state, closed permanently, taking with it jobs, revenue and millions of pounds of landed fish. The state eventually banned the harvesting of menhaden on an industrial scale in North Carolina waters.
But the state’s Marine Fisheries Division has always included menhaden in its annual landings list.
In 2004, the state total for fish, used primarily for agricultural and industrial purposes, such as fish oil and fishmeal, was 50.5 million pounds, worth 4, $5 million. In 2005, the totals were 33 million pounds, worth $1.2 million. Almost all the pounds and all the dollars entered Carteret County’s economy. The workers’ money has spread everywhere in the companies.
In 2006, after Jule Wheatly’s Beaufort mill shut down the previous year, the number of menhaden harvests statewide dropped to 962,651 pounds landed, worth $147,774. As a result, landings of fish and shellfish from Carteret County fell from 19.3 million pounds in 2005 to 6.6 million pounds in 2006.
In 2021, menhaden landings in the state totaled just 430,623 pounds, worth a paltry $116,424.
But when you look at data from the Division of Marine Fisheries, one thing stands out: While the menhaden fishery has disappeared, the value of commercial fishing hasn’t changed much in the state. In fact, it has increased.
In 2004, commercial fishers statewide landed 134.1 million pounds of fish and shellfish, including menhaden, worth $79.7 million. Total statewide fish and shellfish landings in 2021 were 42.3 million pounds, worth $89.7 million.
For winter flounder, shrimp and hard blue crab, three species most targeted by Carteret County anglers over the years, things are more interesting.
In 2004, statewide shrimp landings were 4.8 million pounds, worth $9.4 million. In 2021, that jumped to £9.1 million, worth $24.73 million.
For hard blue crabs, the statistics show 32.5 million pounds, worth $20.2 million in 2004, and 12 million pounds, worth $20.5 million in 2020.
In 2004, data show that 4.8 million pounds of winter flounder were landed, worth $7.9 million. In 2021, the figures for heavily regulated fish were 2 million pounds and $5.8 million.
Changes over the years—regulations that restrict commercial fishing, competition from imported seafood, changing consumer tastes—affected the number and activity of North Carolina and Carteret County residents engaged in fishing. ‘industry.
For example, according to Fisheries Division statistics, there were 2,003 commercial fishing vessel registrations in Carteret County residents in 2004 and 1,317 in 2022. At the same time, the number of standard commercial fishing licenses in the county fell from 1,284 in 2004 to 757 in 2022. There were no sudden declines either, just slow and steady declines.
The change has been less dramatic in the number of standard commercial fishing licenses retired in the county. There were 209 in 2004, and the number peaked at 312 in 2016 before dropping to 259 in 2022.
The standard license costs $400 and the retired standard license costs $200. The latter is accessible to people aged 65 and over. Licenses are valid for one year and expire June 30.
The changes are also evident in the state numbers for the division. For example, in 2004, there were 701 seafood vendors in the state and 4,262 commercial fishing participants. In 2020, there were 531 dealers and 2,345 participants.
Glenn Skinner, executive director of the NC Fisheries Association, a trade and lobbying group for commercial boaters, said that between increasing regulations – and efforts by sport fishing and some wildlife interests to pursue this trend – the future of the industry may look bleak to many who are still involved.
“If they (the Coastal Conservation Association) and others pass their program, there may not be any future at all, except maybe offshore fishing for fish like the snapper and grouper,” he said.
Recreational fishermen and their allies have been undermining the industry for decades, he said. “It’s like death by a thousand cuts.”
On the other hand, Skinner said that if groups aren’t able to push through things like a total ban on trawling and gillnets, “I could see the potential for growth in the industry, especially if some stocks come back like they did in the 60s and into the 90s.
Skinner said there have always been cycles of scarcity and plenty in the commercial fishery, sometimes due to hurricanes or other storms, sometimes for reasons no one fully understood.
Recreational fishers and their groups often cite overfishing by commercial boatmen and blame trawling and gillnets for harming fish stocks. State regulators — the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission and division staff — consider overfishing when developing management plans for all species of fish and shellfish.
Working mariners, Skinner says, know they’re not particularly well placed, “but they still do what they do. They get up in the morning and go out on the boat and come home, then get up the next morning and do it again.
Many fishermen, he said, have taken up fishing part-time and taking up shore-based employment to supplement their income.
“They don’t really do that because they still can’t make a living from commercial fishing,” he said. “It’s just that the future doesn’t look good. They see handwriting on the wall.
Most of them for decades haven’t encouraged their children to get into commercial fishing, so few of them are doing it, Skinner said.
“It’s really hard for young people, starting a family, maybe buying a house and raising kids, to think about doing something that doesn’t seem stable,” he said.
But what happened to the huge menhaden fishery in the county?
It started in the state in the late 1800s after the Civil War. Tiny but valuable fish stocks had been depleted in the northeastern United States, so the industry moved south and found homes along the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Beaufort, Morehead City and Southport were the hubs of North Carolina.
At one time, more than 10 menhaden companies operated in the county, but the number fluctuated over the years.
Steve Goodwin, a Beaufort native and historian whose father was a menhaden boat captain, is well versed in the history of industry in Carteret County.
He said there were eight factories operating 56 boats in 1947, eight factories operating 75 boats in 1950 and five factories operating 62 boats in 1958. By 1971 the number of factories was back to six, but the number of boats were down to 30. The season started in May and sometimes lasted until January, peaking in the fall.
But a new era was approaching. The whole county was changing rapidly in the 1970s, and the pace of development and tourism continued to increase in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. New people had new ideas about what should look like their home country and vacation destination.
Sport fishing, always big business in the county, is expanding. As early as the 1980s, anglers had begun to complain at sea fishing meetings that menhaden were more important as food for their precious fish than for the local economy.
Residents of riverside houses did not complain about the shrimp trawlers, but they did complain about the “ugly” menhaden boats at these same meetings.
Meanwhile, development increased property values and taxes. Beaufort Fisheries was an anachronism, destined to die out, and eventually did.
Looking around Beaufort and Carteret County now, the only real physical evidence of the menhaden industry is in a park in Beaufort: https://www.carolinacoastonline.com/news_times/article_77add59e-999d-11ec-ba12 -1f748ab49d2e.html and in museums, statistics and historical publications.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email [email protected]; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.