Get Outdoors · Simple Living

Commercial Fishing with my Dad in Cape Hatteras

When you go on a beach vacation and you order seafood at the local restaurant, do you have any idea where it comes from? Do you know what a drop net looks like or how it works? Most people have some vague idea of how a farm works, and how their meat and vegetables get on the table, but many people’s only conception of commercial fishing, the industry that provides the seafood special they gobble up on vacation, is the shrimp boats in the movie Forrest Gump. There’s more to it than that, and it’s an industry worth learning about because, much like the small family farm, it’s in danger of disappearing.

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I am the daughter of a commercial fisherman based out of Hatteras Village, North Carolina. Hatteras is best known as the Marlin Capitol of the World, with more and bigger billfish caught off its shores than anywhere else on the globe. People come from all over the world to sport fish, but what the tourists often miss is the commercial fishing industry that also thrives there.

Commercial fishing lacks the glamour of offshore game fishing. It’s hard work, dirty work. It doesn’t lend itself well to taking tourists out for a day’s excursion. When I was home recently and got the chance to go commercial fishing with my dad, I took it. My ten year old daughter came along too. Very few people outside of the industry know what it’s all about. It’s part of my heritage and my family legacy.

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A very sleepy ten year old on the boat and ready to go at 4 a.m.

Commercial fishing is one of the most battered industries in this country. It’s being regulated to death. I can tell you firsthand that it’s getting harder and harder to make a living as a commercial fisherman, and if there aren’t any fishermen, then you don’t get to eat fresh, local seafood. The alternative to fish caught by people like my dad is the huge, corporate operations run by foreign countries who don’t have any of our regulations to prevent over-fishing or indiscriminate killing of animals like porpoises and sea turtles. The other alternative is farm raised fish, also a corporate enterprise, and a disgusting way to raise fish that is both unhealthy for us and catastrophic for the environment. Believe me, if you eat fish, you want to eat fish caught by someone like my dad.

My father has been fishing the same waters off of Cape Hatteras for 45 years. He has stories that would blow your mind. He’s been trapped underwater underneath a capsized boat. He’s seen porpoises, sea turtles, sharks and all manner of other sea creatures most of us never encounter at an aquarium, much less in the wild. He’s been out to sea in thunder storms where the lightning crackles so close that his hair stands on end. He knows the reefs and shoals of the Pamlico Sound the way you know the turns that lead through your neighborhood to your house.

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Readying the buoy and light that attaches to one end of the net.
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The net unwinds into the water. Little buoys keep the top of the net floating at the surface and a rope on the bottom pulls the other end down. This creates a wall of net in the water. Fish swim into it and get caught by their gills, hence the term gill netting.

And he CARES. He cares about the sea, the ecology, the health of the ocean. He is not an infinitely rapacious, gaping-mouthed corporation, eager to consume the sea and turn it into a profit. He does not kill indiscriminately. I watched him pluck a little fatback (probably known to you as an Atlantic menhaden) from the net and toss it back into the sound. Do you think these big commercial operations are taking the time to pluck babies from the net and throw them back in? I don’t think so.

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As soon as the net is in the water, pelicans gather. Sometimes a fish will free itself as the net is pulled in, or my dad will toss a smaller fish back into the water. The pelicans are there to try and catch a quick, easy meal if that happens.
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Doing what all fishermen do- waiting and hoping.
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Watching the sunrise as we wait.

If you have an issue with commercial fishing, most likely what you really have a problem with is corporate, large-scale fishing operations. Small boats like my father’s, manned by people who know their local waters intimately, are the equivalent of the small family farm that gives the cow a wonderful life before it becomes a cheeseburger. I don’t have a problem with eating cows or fish, but I know that there are multiple ways to raise a cow and multiple ways to catch a fish. Some are disastrous for our health and the environment, and some feed our bodies in a way that honors the earth.

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Time to pull the net back in and see what we caught.
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Guiding the net into the boat so that it curves and creates a basket. If a fish gets loose, he falls into the basket.
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A bluefish in the net.
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Spanish mackerel in the net.
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Got him.
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Pelicans wait by the boat for an easy meal.

 

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A lot of people have no idea what the fish they eat looked like in the wild. Spanish mackerel are beautiful fish with bright yellow spots down the length of their body. They have teeth like tiny razor blades as well.

I was going to link to some articles about farmed fish vs. wild caught fish, but I decided to let you do your own research. That way you can’t accuse me of being biased or one-sided. Read about how fish farming is destroying the mangrove groves in Southeast Asia, permanently altering the fragile ecology and making the coastline more susceptible to catastrophic flooding from hurricanes. Read about the antibiotics fed to fish on farms because they’re so crowded they get diseased. Read about what they feed farmed fish (hint: it’s wild caught fish). Read how salmon farms in the Pacific Northwest are affecting wild salmon populations, the main food source of wild orca pods in the area. Read about Piscine Reovirus, a disease introduced into wild salmon populations in Canada from fish farming operations there. Virtually all of the farmed fish are infected, so if you eat salmon farmed in Canada, you’re eating diseased fish.

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Our catch. Hardly enough to make a dent in the population.
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The fish ride back on ice.

 

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The sun is barely up, and we’re headed back to the dock with our catch.
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This 10 year old is not used to getting up at 4 a.m.
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Few tourists ever see the commercial dock in Hatteras Village. It is tucked away at the back of the village just down the creek from one of the sport fishing docks.
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Back at the dock, we have to ice up the boat again. That mountain of ice feels like Paradise in the summer.
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Not exactly a tourist hot spot, but an integral part of how your seafood dinner makes it onto the table at a restaurant.
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Ice ready to go in the fish box.
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I borrowed my dad’s oilskins for the day.

Maybe I am biased and one-sided, but it seems so obvious to me that factory-scale food production is NEVER a good idea. We were all healthier and the animals were treated better when we bought our food from local, small, family farmers. Before the advent of industrialized agriculture, mass numbers of people in this country weren’t dying of cancer and other food-related illnesses like heart disease. You could argue with me, I suppose, but I think you’re kidding yourself if you think that the way we eat isn’t killing us.

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Cleaning a Spanish.

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My dad tosses a fish carcass over my head into the water for the crabs and minnows to eat. Nothing is wasted.

If you google anything about commercial fishing, you will undoubtedly come across Seafood Watch. Seafood Watch, the self-proclaimed arbiter of seafood sustainability, encourages everyone to eat farmed fish instead of wild caught, claiming that the world’s wild fish populations are over-fished. They want us to believe that it’s somehow better to eat a fish raised in a crowded tank that never got to do what fish are supposed to do, who was fed antibiotics to fight diseases endemic to overcrowding, whose run-off pollutes the surrounding waterways from rivers all the way out to the oceans, than it is to eat a fish caught in the wild by someone like my father. That reminds me a lot of the people who tell me that eating a cow separated from its mother too soon, forced to stand knee deep in its own dung eating corn, which causes e. coli to grow in its gut, then fed antibiotics to kill the e. coli, is somehow better than eating a cow raised by a family that ate grass all its life and got to stay with its mama until it naturally weaned.

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You can see one of the sport boats in the background.

Maybe there’s no going back from the globalized, industrial-scale food production model that we’re all stuck with now, but we have some choices in what food we purchase. I only eat grass fed beef and I only eat wild caught fish.

The next time you’re at a restaurant, whether you’re near the coast or not, ask the waitress where the fish was sourced. Was it caught in the U.S. or imported from overseas? Was it wild caught or farmed? I encourage you not to support imported or farmed seafood. Fish farming is mass food production at its worst, and if you buy imported seafood, you are preventing people like my father, who cares about the ocean and the creatures in it, from making a living.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Commercial Fishing with my Dad in Cape Hatteras

  1. What a well informed article on your father’s fishing career. I cannot say enough about what a great article. Hard work but a love of life Thanks for
    sharing and educating me.

  2. Well written and its a joy to hear he appreciation for natural resources, living in communion with nature and the way you honor your father and his ecologically responsible way of living and of making a living, as a commercial fisherman. You and your family ROCK!

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