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NC Fish House Inventory Shows Promise

O'Neal's Sea Harvest
Leoneda Inge

The past decade has been especially hard on one of North Carolina’s most treasured industries.  Since 2000,  the coast has lost 36-percent of its fish houses. That’s where fishermen sell and deliver their catch for wholesale distribution.  A new fish house inventory funded by North Carolina Sea Grant shows the rate of closings has slowed.  Changing Economy Reporter Leoneda Inge visited a fish house on the Outer Banks that has worked to turn its business around.

Leoneda Inge:  It’s Friday afternoon at O’Neal’s Sea Harvest fish house in Wanchese.  The owner, Benny O’Neal, walks the slippery floor, slick with dripping juice from fish, crabs and shrimp just brought in fresh.  To O’Neal’s back is a large table surrounded by workers heading shrimp as big as a hot dog.

Benny O'Neal:  Spring and fall is a good season for seafood. When the water starts warming from the winter and now cooling from the summer, so this is a good time, we’re getting a lot of shrimp.

A lot of mackerel is also coming in, and blue fish, flounder and tuna.  O’Neal says there’s plenty of fish to catch.

Benny O'Neal:  A lot of boys are fishing now that maybe used to do other things, like contractors. And when building fell out, now they’re fishing.  We’ve gained some folks from doing that.

On the dock next to O’Neal’s is a large truck with the motor running.  Workers are icing fish and packing it in the truck. Most seafood from this fish house heads up and down the east coast, to places like the famous Fulton Market in New York.  The latest inventory says there are 83 fish houses like O’Neal’s still operating in North Carolina.  Nine fish houses closed since 2009, but that’s a slower rate of closing than a decade ago.  Benny O’Neal has been able to keep his business strong by changing things up a bit.  Before you see his fish house operation on the harbor – you see his café and retail shop.  The slogan on his glossy brochure reads, “Come where it’s caught, cleaned & cooked.”  I must admit, the fried soft-shell crab sandwich is delicious!  Elizabeth Yates of Charlotte just spent 57-dollars mostly on shrimp.

Inge:  When you used to come here, 15 years ago, you didn’t come into a shop like this.

Elizabeth Yates:  No. We’ve actually gone out through the gate where they back the trucks up to it and had to pull somebody out of the office because we would be the only customer.

Inge:  Trying to get your shrimp and tuna.

Elizabeth Yates:  Trying to get my shrimp and tuna.

Inge:  Now today, let’s zoom forward 15 years, explain where we are now and what you like about it.

Elizabeth Yates:  It’s accessible, and easy and it’s popular which means it’s going to probably survive.

That’s great news for folks like Sara Mirabilio.  She’s a fisheries specialist with the North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Program in Manteo.   Mirabilio spends her time visiting fisherman and fish houses – trying to help them diversify their business models - she calls it making fish cakes out of fish.

Sara Mirabilio:  All of this is good because when you have a diversified business model, if something goes wrong in one sector you have your other sectors or your other parts of your business that can make money and sort of off-set one weak link in your business.

And business hasn’t been easy for fishermen and fish house operators, the fish house inventory cites threats from cheaper, imported seafood, stricter fisheries regulations and if you talk to a fisherman, high fuel prices.  Results from the inventory will be used in research underway at East Carolina University.  It is looking at ways to move more local seafood throughout the state to help preserve the industry.   Two NC-State grads have already embraced that part of the business model.  For two years Ryan Speckman and Lin Peterson have been making trips to fish houses like O’Neal’s and selling seafood on the side of the road. That evolved into their new business – Locals Seafood.  Lin Peterson.

Lin Peterson:  Get products from the commercial fisherman on the coast, to the Triangle, move it fast, get it super fresh and also introduce folks to species they may not have tried before.

Today they have a small space at the State Farmer’s Market in Raleigh  selling fresh fish two days a week or until they sell out.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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