Fish on the Current

Megan M. Spencer
I caught my first drum and was so happy until I attempted to clean it myself. I thought I had seen enough of the art form to do it myself. Na. Not so much.

My Pop (Norman Thompson), a commercial fisherman and Swan Quarter native made it look so easy. As do all the commercial fishermen I know.

With my hacked-up drum fillets in hand and scales in my hair, I realized just how blessed I am to have grown up a coastal Carolina girl. I always have someone nearby to clean my fish for me. And I don’t have to try for three weeks to catch it myself. 

Therefore, catching my first drum of the season was quite bittersweet, because looming over us is House Bill 983, which would make it illegal for commercial fishermen to catch and sell red drum, speckled trout and striped bass. Under this legislation, these fish would be considered “Gamefish.”

House Bill 983 has been dubbed “The  2013 Fisheries Economic Development Act,” which is the most misleading title I‘ve ever heard of. A group of for-fun anglers wants to keep the most sought after recreational species all to themselves, thus denying the right to eat fresh fish to those that don’t catch it on their own. If you want to get technical, recreational anglers discard more drum than commercial fishermen land (according to NC Division of Marine Fisheries).

I am vehemently opposed the Gamefish idea, which has been up for discussion in the legislature since 2009, and I hope you do the same. Not only is it draconian, it is deadly for our coastal communities and all we’ve stood for since the country’s beginning.

My commercial fishermen grandfather would have smiled as he pretended to be aggravated with me about making so much racket over reeling in a puppy drum.
My commercial fishermen grandfather would have smiled as he pretended to be aggravated with me about making so much racket over reeling in a puppy drum.

So let me explain how I learned how to fish. And where I come from.

I grew up in Swan Quarter where my grandfather, as well as uncles, and countless cousins, were (are) commercial fisherman. Actually the land that is now the Wildlife Resources Commission public boat access (just off the ferry) used to be Pop’s land where he operated a small time crab shedder.  

He’s the commercial fisherman that taught me how to recreationally fish. We used to take his crab pot-puller boat and chase the ferry after school on warm days. While we were at it, we checked his crab pots and eyeballed the nets in the water. Sometimes we jumped over board onto a sandy shoal to swim. But we always had a fishing pole on board to play with, too. Pop would pretend to be aggravated by all the racket we made when we reeled in a fish, smiling while he told his grandkids to quit acting so durn crazy.

Fresh seafood was on the menu every Sunday for our whole extended family. Each time we finished dinner, Pop would say the same thing and mean it: “Aint many folks eat this good.”

Because of him, I’ve had a soft spot for commercial fishermen all my life and I take so much pride in the heritage of the industry. I’ve watched fishermen in feast and famine work hard to make a paycheck for their family and still be very proud to bring the catch to the table (or share with a neighbor). 

It didn’t dawn on me as a kid how good I had it until I went off to college and got homesick. I saw whiting on the menu and was excited to order some sea mullet. But the plate I got made me realize I wasn’t in Hyde County anymore. It tasted like I licked a bleach-soaked fish cleaning counter. It certainly wasn’t the fish my Pop caught and fried out back in the shed. 

That’s when I began to find out the hard reality that more than 80 percent of our seafood consumed in this country is imported. To me, eating this crap is simply unpatriotic – it cuts my family and community out of jobs.

But, it’s not about the heartfelt love I have for my fishing family and community that makes me so opposed to designating game fish status for drum, speck and rockfish. If it weren’t for commercial fishermen, folks without boats or fishing poles or those who don’t live near the coast would be denied access to our bountiful coastal resources. Therefore, we will be forced to hand our money overseas and eat foreign mess that is very rarely inspected for additives and chemicals.

Here on our American soil, increased regulations, higher cost of overhead and (of course) weather have made commercial fishermen a dying breed. I see the evidence first hand in my distressed hometown of Swan Quarter. Pop’s been gone from the fishing industry since Isabel in 2003 and gone from this world since 2010. I watched him proudly share his catches, eagerly talk with the rest of the fleet about their endeavors and  also shake his head in shame about unjustness of the system. I miss him every day.

I can’t talk about Pop without mentioning Mama Edith, who left us in 2000. She religiously reminded me to “always row my own boat” when she wanted me to stay strong or to “fish my own shad nets” when she wanted me to mind my business. Her metaphors still remind me that fishermen are a hardy bunch and they have persevered for ages in one of the oldest professions in the world. 

Ocracoke Working Watermen's Association is a fine example of that perseverence and I'm proud to know a village that pulled together to save the island’s last fish house from being developed into rental property. These 35 or so fishermen make up about 5 percent of the island population. Even better, they hand deliver their catch to local restaurants and work as advocates to ensure folks are educated on the trade.

It’s something Pop would be proud of. I like to think he would be even more proud to know that I’m telling the story for others to understand. I’m certainly proud of how he instilled this knowledge in me and ensured it carried to the next generation.

Commercial fishermen are not only a family heritage for our coastal communities, they provide access to our local resource that people would not have otherwise. Please remember these folks each time you take a bite of seafood. And please protect this industry by purchasing local seafood and supporting Ocracoke Seafood Company. 

More importantly, please take steps to oppose HB 983. Check out Mr Day’s call to action. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.    
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