The seafood wholesalers that help make commercial fishing possible are no longer disappearing from North Carolina’s coast at an alarming rate, but they’re still vanishing even as interest in locally caught seafood rises.
A new survey of the state’s fish houses has found a net loss of nine from 2006 to 2011, or slightly less than 10 percent. That left 83 in business.
The study is a follow-up to a similar one in 2007, just after the peak of the coastal real estate boom, which found that about 30 percent of the state’s fish houses closed in the five years ending in 2006.
Fish houses buy and pack the catch from commercial fishermen and, in some cases, provide them with dock space. Their decline has added to a host of pressures that have contributed to a drop in the number of commercial fishermen in the state.
Both studies were performed by Barbara Garrity-Blake, a cultural anthropologist who lives in Carteret County, and Barry Nash, a seafood technology and marketing specialist with N.C. Sea Grant, which sponsors research, education and outreach on coastal issues. Sea Grant paid for the new study.
Together, the studies provide a decadelong snapshot of the industry, which shrank when dozens of owners sold out for eye-popping amounts during the boom. Those who remain are battered by a host of problems, including cheap imported seafood, tighter fisheries restrictions and the high cost of fuel for fishing boats.
The first inventory was performed on behalf of a committee appointed by the state Legislature to study the rapid loss of working waterfront and public access to coastal waters.
Since then, the “local catch” movement has gained momentum, with retailers and restaurants touting the benefits of locally-sourced seafood.
A statewide umbrella group called N.C. Catch was started this year with funding from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center to help four smaller organizations that promote local seafood, each along different stretches of the coast: Brunswick and Carteret counties, Ocracoke Island and the Outer Banks.
Among fish house owners in the latest study, 67 percent said demand for local seafood has increased. Many, though, operate in areas not covered by one of the local catch groups, and the study recommends creating more.
“It has really made people more aware, and now when they call they will ask, ‘Is it local?’ ” said Jackie Varnam, co-owner of Garland’s Fresh Seafood, which has been in business on the waterfront in Brunswick County for nearly 60 years.
Varnam also is on the board of directors for Brunswick Catch.
The results of the earlier survey helped persuade state lawmakers to pass a bill that allowed owners of “working waterfront” – businesses such as fish houses, fishing piers and commercial docks – to pay local property taxes based on the value of the property at its current use rather than its potential value for homes, condos or hotels, which could be substantially higher. The difference is deferred each year until the use changes.
More than half of the 45 waterfront fish house operators the researchers surveyed recently weren’t aware of the tax break, said Garrity-Blake. The eight who said they were using it reported saving $3,000 to $5,000 a year.
Varnam said Garland’s had been using the tax break from the first year it was available. It alone hasn’t kept the company in business, he said, but everything helps when margins are tight.
Garrity-Blake said it would help if the Legislature passed a bill already introduced that would exempt commercial fishing boats from property taxes.
The remaining fish house owners have become creative in looking for ways to survive, she said, including opening retail operations and adding value to seafood by processing it, say, from crabs to crab cakes. One added a touch tank for tourists to have close encounters with sea life. Some have started their own “community-supported fisheries” that sell in advance weekly “shares” of whatever the local catch happens to be, typically to inland customers.
“There weren’t any shocking revelations in our inventory, but there are various new initiatives and it will be interesting to see the extent to which they take hold and are successful,” Garrity-Blake said.
In addition to the slowdown in the number of fish house closings, the survey found other spots of good news for the industry. For one thing, five new fish houses opened, softening the blow of 14 closing. And three fish houses counted in the initial survey as closed because they were under contract to sell are still open because the deals fell through.
If the prices for waterfront property start climbing again, then the pressures to sell will return, Garrity-Blake said.