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By Taylor Knopf
During a major hurricane, fish migrate away, oysters get contaminated and shrimp are blown to sea, scattered to deeper waters.
Though sometimes unnoticed, the seafood industry takes a big hit after storms like Florence. Not only does the crop move, but fishermen often live and work in the coastal communities that take the brunt of the storm’s rage.
“We get overlooked real easy. We are isolated to the coast. And unlike the agricultural industry, this affects everyone,” said Glenn Skinner, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association. “Everyone who fishes is affected by this.”
Their boats, gear, docks and packing houses take a blow.
Anticipating the power outages, many fishermen got as much seafood as they could out of their giant cooling lockers and shipped it north and west. Any inventory that touches flood waters must be discarded.
Florence struck Pamlico County fishermen the hardest, according to Skinner. Some fish packing operations in Oriental and Vandemere were completely destroyed.
“It’s going to be a real hard winter for the industry,” Skinner said.
“We are kind of like farmers, we have a fall crop,” he explained. “The fall fisheries are big. We use that money and put it away for the winter time. The fisheries are going to be gone after this strong blow for several days. It will be next spring before we can make that up.”
Jerry Schill, government affairs liaison for the fisheries association, said these types of storms have a big impact on the mental health of fishermen and other working class North Carolinians.
“These guys don’t get a W2 at the end of the year, they get a 1099. If they don’t catch anything, they get nothing. It doesn’t matter how hard they work. The crew is paid the same as the captain.
“That’s a lot of stress on a family,” he added.
It’s these types of stressors that could contribute to some of the mental health problems providers see in the area.
‘Neighbors helping neighbors’
In the wake of the storm, some fishermen used their unique assets to assist neighbors.
Fish packing houses have walk-in ice freezers that hold mounds of shaved ice, like piles of snow plowed to the roadsides after a blizzard.
Local fishermen offered and delivered ice to anyone without power after the storm. With electric poles knocked down and stripped of wire, it took more than a week to restore some parts of the coast.
Brent Fulcher, who owns a large seafood operation out of Beaufort, posted to Facebook that he was offering ice and hot showers on his boats. The larger boats, like Fulcher’s, go out to sea for days at a time and are equipped with showers.
A hot shower and a little ice to keep your drinks and food cool can make a big difference after a hurricane.
In some instances, local fishermen also used their smaller boats to rescue friends and neighbors from their flooded homes.
Skinner lives on land that’s been in his family for about 200 years, noting that his Newport neighborhood is not considered a flood zone. But during Hurricane Florence, he said the water was chest deep in his front yard and over his head in his backyard.
“The flooding in areas that normally don’t flood, that surprised a lot of people in our area,” he said. “If they aren’t in a flood zone, they don’t have flood insurance. But many houses flooded anyway.”
Skinner tied his 27-foot fishing boat to his front porch as it floated off its trailer. He planned to take his family through the second story windows and onto the boat if the waters came into the house. Luckily, his house sits up on a concrete block foundation and was spared.
Skinner rescued a nearby friend and his cousin and some of her animals from flooding. He managed to escort two horses through the flood waters to safety, as well as a dog and a goat.
Gov. Roy Cooper visited Newport last week, which was ravaged by flood waters and tornados.
“The people that I’ve been talking to today are helping each other. Neighbors are helping neighbors,” Cooper said.
“I talked to one woman whose house had been destroyed. She was out serving meals to other people. That is the spirit of North Carolina,” he said.
Scattered shrimp and bad oysters
Though many are focused on what happens above water during a hurricane, marine scientists at University of North Carolina are interested in the critters below.
Rachel Noble, professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, said for many, their habitat is disrupted and they can be blown out to sea or pushed away by waves.
It’s hard for those making a living catching shrimp, clams and oysters, she said.
Many shrimp species are found in estuaries, which are between five and 10 feet deep. The high concentration of shrimp and shallow waters allow fishermen use trawlers to run back and forth across the sea floor — like a lawn mower — collecting shrimp.
After a hurricane, those shrimp are blown out of estuaries and into deeper waters. They become difficult to find and the return on investment for going out to shrimp is simply not worth it, Noble said.
The shrimp will begin to regrow in the estuaries in the spring, but must grow to some maturity throughout the early summer before they are worth collecting.
John Willis, from Harkers Island, has been fishing full time for 37 years and says it’s always tough after a big storm.“What a hurricane will do to the seafood — the fish, the shrimp, the crab or the flounder or any of it — they feel the effects of it coming and they leave. They go different places,” he said. “When they go out of our reach, we can’t get to where they are at to catch them. So we don’t really have a good season after the hurricane.”
The past few days, he’s been trying to catch the few shrimp that are left near Cedar Island.
“It’s the last of the Mohicans out there. They aren’t doing real great,” he said.
The storm waters also brings in contamination.
“If the water is too polluted, oysters can’t filter like they usually do and they shut down,” Noble said. She explained that the bivalves go into a dormant phase and stop filtering the sediments and industrial and sewage waste that enters the water through storm flooding.
Even when they start filtering again, Noble said that the bacteria and viruses that make people sick remain in the shellfish tissues even after the pollutants are filtered out.
She and her graduate students in Morehead City at the institute have been testing and monitoring shellfish since Florence blew through a few weeks ago.
She said the conventional wisdom that an oyster only needs about 30 days to recover is inaccurate.
“It’s not one size fits all,” Noble said. “The shellfish won’t be magically ready to eat again in 30 days.”
‘Oversized foot in your Southern posterior’
Last week, Donald “Pancho” sat on the Marshallberg dock holding a Bud Light and staring down into the water at his 20-foot fishing boat.
“That little one is just a miniature, but it does the same things as the shrimp boats but on a smaller scale. It was my little retirement thing. It made it through the storm, but that last rain… The pump couldn’t keep up with it,” Pancho said.
He’s spent his life fishing, but now he’s moved to part time.
“I go clamming, oystering, I work the water. Whatever I catch, I take over to the fish house and it’s a nice little supplement for my social security,” he said.
He’s not giving up on his boat just yet. But he said he has to wait for a low tide to pump the water back out of it.
“This is like an oversized foot in your southern posterior,” he said shaking his head.
Pancho said the 38-year-old boat was built by a guy on Harkers Island, and he’s only the second owner. It’s unique and almost an antique.
“At least seven people have offered to buy it from me because you just don’t find many like that anymore,” he said.