Wilmington, NC – Last year, North Carolina fishermen brought in a total catch worth more than 70 million dollars, according to the Department of Marine Fisheries. But the fish houses that buy and ship that bounty are rapidly disappearing from the coast.
Blackburn Brothers ship has come in. Okay, today it's just a small skiff, the owner dropping off coolers of flounder and puppy drum on the dock of the Carolina Beach fish house. Young men working here rinse off the fish and sort them into plastic baskets.
Standing nearby, owner Joe Blackburn tallies up the catch in a grimy account book. From his small dock, these fish are headed to dinner tables in several states.
Blackburn himself is a piece of old Carolina Beach. There's no computer in his sweltering cinderblock office, just piles of account books scattered across a ragged desk calendar left forgotten on the month of July 2005.
Blackburn can remember when this was a sleepy fishing village, before the real estate boom transformed one fish house after another into condos and beach mansions. Now Blackburn Brothers is the seafood industry in Carolina Beach. All the rest have closed. But Blackburn sits on leased land, and developers have started making offers to the owners.
Blackburn says his family saw the writing on the wall a few years ago and moved their trucking facility up to Rocky Mount.
"We got them out of here so we'd have some place to go," Blackburn explains. "I just plan on staying here as long as I can; just to protect what fishermen there is left. And we have eight employees left here that I want to keep the jobs [for]."
Closing Up Shop
From Calabash frying pans to the Sneads Ferry Shrimp festival, fresh seafood is an icon of coastal North Carolina. But the unglamorous, often odiferous, processing houses that move fish from boat holds to market cases are disappearing rapidly.
A study found that between 2000 and 2006, North Carolina lost a third of its fish houses. The squeeze comes on both ends: competition from cheaper imported seafood pushing prices down, while the skyrocketing value of waterfront property drives taxes up.
Blackburn says he has sympathy for the owners who've gotten out, saying what they're offered for their land is so crazy, "they can't turn it down. I don't blame them, not have to work anymore. Because this is 24-7. There's no way around it."
North Carolina's General Assembly is considering ways to help those owners who want to stay in business. A state committee recently recommended creating freezing property taxes for fish houses at their present use value, so they won't rise as land gets more expensive.
But UNCW economics professor Edward Graham says that, short of telling owners they can't sell, it may require drastic measures to save working waterfronts.
His remedy: "buy that land from the property owner [and] lease the facilities at a well-below-market rate to the fish house operator, because he or she can not make money to justify that land's value, I am confident."
But while the public may be willing to shell out for public piers and marinas, it could prove a different matter those dollars are asked to subsidize private businesses.
Jack Lea agrees with Graham in principle, that the days of the waterfront fish houses are numbers. "It's like the old farmers with their mule," the former owner of Lea and Sons Fish house says. "Them days are gone."
Signs along Highway 17 still proclaim this Pender-County community The Seafood Capital of North Carolina, but Lea and Sons Inc., is one of only two wholesalers left, and he doubts anyone will take over once the current owner, his nephew, retires. The fish business, he says, is just too hard.
"Stock you can buy it and hold it, fish you can't," he explains. "You've got to sell, no matter what the market."
Lea is the second generation to own Lea and Sons' Fish. As a boy he'd come to the shop at four in the morning to make phone calls to New York companies for his father who, despite founding the company, never learned to read or write.
Now Lea can tick off departed competitors by the score. "For example," he says, "Southport, Good lord, used to be a dozen houses, and today there's only one. Wrightsville Beach: one. Carolina Beach: one. Moorehead City: two. Beaufort: one. One in Atlantic Beach."
Lea says his company runs fewer trucks every year.
Links in the Chain
Only a few miles south of Lea and Sons, Terri Edens is busy at her roadside stand, weighing out handfuls of fresh shrimp from a stack of coolers to satisfy the steady stream of customers who pull off Highway 17.
Edens' possibly the smallest link in the seafood sales chain, but the closing of North Carolina's fish houses hurts her too. She says with fewer outlets for local seafood, the next generation is losing the taste for it.
"They don't even know what good fresh seafood is," she complains. "They go to a restaurant, they get European shrimp. They get farm-raised stuff and all. Some of these kids have no idea what it was to be brought up to eat fresh fish and fresh seafood. They just have no idea."
Eden's husband is a shrimper and salesman at Lea and Sons. Their son wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, but worried about make a living, insetead got a machinists degree. Now he fishes part time.
Fishing may be in her family's blood, Edens says, but it doesn't have much of a future.