Gone Fishing pt. 3 -- North Carolina's Fishing Piers

Wilmington, NC – It's a sunny day at Oak Island's Yaupon Pier. Fishermen stand along the railings every ten feet and watch their lines disappear into the water. Steven Ackermann and his nine-year-old son Austin watch their three poles carefully when Austin sees his pole bend.

The Ackermanns come to Oak Island from Buford, Georgia every summer. The older Ackermann says they're happy to be fishing, but also a little disappointed this year.

"There used to be a big pier down on west beach, they tore it down," Ackermann says. "Yeah, we liked that pier, it went out a little further. Catch more variety of fish."

He's referring to Long Beach Pier, one of the six piers to close since 2000. Now Ackermann comes to Yaupon Pier, which offers a similar fishing experience.

Inside the Yaupon Pier store, manager Doug Westbrook sells a bottle of soda. Only a few customers linger in the store this afternoon. Westbrook says the slow but steady pace is nothing to worry about, but he still worries when he hears about other piers closing.

"Of course anytime we lose a pier no matter where it's at, we hate to see it," Westbrook says. "It seems like they're fewer and fewer and farther between and it's, you know, I don't know what's eventually going to happen, I hope they don't all go away."

A few miles south of Yaupon, Ocean Crest Pier stretches over the water. Catching a bit of afternoon sun, Chief Operations Officer Dave Cooper sits on a bench and watches his customers walk by. Cooper says the Ocean Crest Pier, like many piers, is corporately structured for its protection.

"In today's market it would be nearly impossible for any one person to have complete control over an entity like this."

Cooper says he worries when he hears rumors about piers closing down. A new waterfront access study finds that in 1980, North Carolina was home to 36 piers. Today there are 20 left standing. According to the study, beach erosion, damage from hurricanes and rising property tax bills all adversely impact those trying to run a viable business. Cooper agrees.

"There's been a lot of nice piers that've been lost on the coast simply because the fixed cost of running the business has gone up and the infrastructure you're looking at $200,000 just on insuring the pier. You couldn't survive on just fishing passes alone, you've got to get volumes of the folks across the full age group demographics to support what you're doing, to meet those expenses."

But insurance isn't the only expense. Pier owners in North Carolina pay between $2,000 and $4,000 dollars for a blanket license. That's compared to $350 paid by pier owners in South Carolina. They also face taxation at the highest use value, which means if a single-family house in the same location could bring in more tax dollars, the state will tax the pier at the house's rate. With such an enormous expense, pier owners have to decide what to cut. Al Baird, member of the North Carolina Fishing Pier Society, says insurance is the first thing to go.

"You know the price of insurance so much, these guys are figuring, you know, three four years of paying insurance premiums, if I get lucky and get that far, I'd be better off self-insuring myself."

So if a hurricane destroys a pier after one year of self-insuring, there won't be enough money to rebuild. But even with insurance, Baird says, storms can destroy piers beyond repair. To prevent storms from washing away more piers and to slow development from moving in on the prime real estate, the Waterfront Access Study sent to lawmakers suggests changing the tax valuation and setting up a trust fund, which would give lawmakers tools to protect coastal piers from elements both natural and manmade.