For NC seafood festivals, there’s a small catch

Imported seafood sold at local NC festivals

NC fishermen and their advocates say local festivals should sell local seafood. Vendors say it’s nearly impossible to sell only the harvest from NC waters. Commercial fisherman Dewey Hemilright shares more.
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NC fishermen and their advocates say local festivals should sell local seafood. Vendors say it’s nearly impossible to sell only the harvest from NC waters. Commercial fisherman Dewey Hemilright shares more.

Dewey Hemilright has spent more than half his life in North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry, but he says he has never heard a bigger fish story than the claim by the Outer Banks Seafood Festival that it promotes the harvest he and his colleagues work so hard to haul in.

“It’s a deception,” he said, after first using a colorful phrase that rolls more easily off the tongue of a career waterman. “They’re telling people – or at least implying to people – who come down here that they’re going to get local North Carolina seafood. They’re not. What they’re getting is imported. But put that on your sign and see how many people show up. It’s not right. You shouldn’t have to read the fine print.”

A handful of small events along the coast each year feature the blue crabs, brown shrimp, yellowfin tuna and some of the dozens of other shellfish and finfish species that fishermen wrestle from the state’s oceans and sounds. But two of the most heavily promoted festivals – the Outer Banks Seafood Festival in Nags Head and the North Carolina Seafood Festival in Morehead City – predominantly offer the same foreign imports that American consumers typically buy in grocery stores and eat at restaurants.

Festival organizers say they encourage, but can’t force, vendors to serve North Carolina products. They add that those who offer flounder platters and baskets of deep-fried shrimp from booths, between the band performances and the craft tents, say that cost and limited availability make it difficult, if not impossible, to sell only what is homegrown.

Nobody is saying they have to, or even could, provide 100 percent N.C. seafood at all these events. But we feel like we are by far underrepresented at the table.

David Bush, biologist, N.C. Fisheries Association

Advocates for the thousands of North Carolina men and women who still fish for a living, or who work as seafood dealers, processors, wholesalers, retailers or in restaurants that focus on local catches, say the festivals – which are supported by grants, chambers of commerce and corporate sponsors – could do more to support the industry. Doing so, they say, could help people far from the coast appreciate domestic seafood and what it takes to harvest it. It could also help consumers understand why it’s important to protect water quality and preserve marine habitat so the industry can survive.


“Nobody is saying they have to, or even could, provide 100 percent N.C. seafood at all these events,” said David Bush, a biologist with the N.C. Fisheries Association, the industry trade group. “But we feel like we are by far underrepresented at the table.”

This spring, after pressing the issue with the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, a daylong event in Nags Head going into its fifth year, the local commercial fishing advocacy group Outer Banks Catch announced it would withdraw from the Oct. 15 event.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration based in Silver Spring, Md., the U.S. imports up to 90 percent of the seafood consumed here each year, most of it from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador. By volume, NOAA says, the top imports are shrimp, freshwater fish, tuna, salmon, groundfish (such as cod and flounder), crab and squid.


While NOAA says some of that seafood is caught by American fishermen, sent for processing overseas and then returned for sale to U.S. consumers, some of it also is raised on farms or caught in waters in foreign countries under questionable sanitary conditions; may be treated with antibiotics, or with chemicals as preservatives or color or weight enhancers; may not be handled as scrupulously as domestic-caught seafood, making it more vulnerable to pathogens; and is subject to a far less rigorous inspection process.

Declining numbers

Hemilright, 49, born on the Outer Banks, says he started working at a fish house after high school and worked his way up to being a fisherman. Now, he mostly plies offshore waters in search of tuna, swordfish and shark. For the past several years, he has spent his summers in Alaska fishing for salmon.

He has spent less time on the water since getting involved years ago in fisheries management issues; he speaks at meetings in North Carolina and in other states where regulators discuss the dizzying rules that govern what marine life can be caught when, in what quantities and with what type of equipment. Fisheries are managed by state and federal officials to prevent overfishing and to restore depleted stocks.

Fishing can be hard physical work. It can be dangerous. It can require considerable investment, which can be made back by a warm winter or wiped out by a hurricane. It’s subject to environmental disaster. Individual fisheries can be shut down or severely restricted on short notice by changes in state or federal rules.

For those reasons and more, the number of fishermen in the state has been on the decline; in 2000, 4,208 people participated in the commercial fishing industry in the state, according to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. In 2014, the number was 2,616.


The amount of seafood landed also has declined, Marine Fisheries says, owing to fewer working watermen and more limits on the fisheries.

As with any commodity, scarcity increases price. The 154.2 million pounds of finfish and shellfish landed in North Carolina in 2000 brought in $108.3 million. A report released by the state last week said that in 2015, commercial fishermen sold 66 million pounds of seafood for $104 million.

If you want to eat my seafood, I love you for it, but it does cost a little more. And it’s worth it.

Dewey Hemilright, Outer Banks fisherman

At the retail level, the difference between the price of imported and domestic seafood can be several dollars per pound. The difference in taste, some say, is much more dramatic, like the difference between an apple picked from a tree under the autumn sun versus one that’s been sitting in refrigerated storage for months.

“It takes a little extra for me to go catch it,” said Hemilright, “with all the log books and observers and cameras and the turtle excluders (a device that lets a turtle escape from a net) and everything else. But if you want access to that seafood, unless you can charter a boat or you own one, you’re going to have to pay somebody to go get it.

“If you want to eat my seafood, I love you for it, but it does cost a little more. And it’s worth it.”

Stephanie McIntyre, executive director of the N.C. Seafood Festival, thinks customers will pay what it costs to get North Carolina seafood. Her organization has polled visitors about what they want from the festival – the largest in the state, averaging 200,000 people over three days, this year from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 in Morehead City.

“Better entertainment,” she said. “And more local seafood.”

It can be a hard sell. Food vendors, including churches and other non-profits as well as scaled-down mobile extensions of local restaurants, need to be able to cook large amounts of food quickly to satisfy festival crowds, who get impatient waiting in long lines. To do so, many resort to prepared items such as frozen breaded shrimp that can be tossed into a fryer and served up in minutes with a stack of french fries.

Last year, McIntyre said, the festival had 63 food vendors, and each one was asked to serve at least one North Carolina-harvested seafood. The 54 that did earned the right to fly a bright yellow “Got to be NC Seafood” flag from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The festival can check invoices to make sure the seafood is local.

Critics such as Pam Morris, president of Carteret Catch, the local fishing industry nonprofit advocacy group, said, “It has gotten better. But there’s still too many people out there selling alligator bites and all this other mess.”

Improvements are hard fought, said McIntyre, who has worked with the festival for 15 years. She cites the example of St. Egbert Catholic School, which has had a booth at the festival since the event began and now relies on it as its major fundraiser, using the proceeds to offset operating costs and defray tuition.

The main draw on the menu at St. Egbert’s is the Cajun Shrimp Pita, which has developed such a loyal following the school now sells its secret seasoning, too. But only recently did the school take the risk of investing in local shrimp, McIntyre said. In 2014, St. Egbert bought more than 800 pounds of shrimp from Mr. Big Seafood in Harkers Island, a fishing community in Carteret County.

“They’re hesitant to take the step because of the cost,” McIntyre said of her vendors. “But they pass that cost on to the consumer, and they end up selling more. It’s what people want. And if that’s what people want, we want to give it to them.”

Once people taste local seafood, McIntyre said, “There’s no going back” to imports.

The N.C. Seafood Festival, McIntyre said, includes a tent where chefs selected by the festival for their prowess in cooking fresh local catch give talks and cooking demonstrations.

‘Local means local’

Benny O’Neal still works in the seafood house he started in the fishing community of Wanchese when he realized he wasn’t a good enough fisherman to put his children through college. O’Neal’s Sea Harvest, now a family business run primarily by his kids, is still a “bucket fish house,” catering to fishermen with skiffs or small trawlers. This time of year, the fish house is busy taking in crabs, which are unloaded from boats at the back door, sorted, crated and sent out the front door, so fresh they reach claws through their bushel-basket containers to try to pinch the men loading them onto refrigerated trucks.

The operation also includes a retail store and a casual restaurant that cooks what the O’Neals buy as soon as it’s cleaned.


O’Neal says he understands that a lack of consistent availability of North Carolina seafood could make a restaurant turn to imports, whether they’re serving it in their restaurant or at a booth at a festival.

“You have an item on your menu, you need to know that you can get that item reliably, when you need it,” O’Neal said last week as a fisherman and his teenage son arrived on the dock with the day’s haul of crabs. “With all the regulations they have to deal with, and everything else, a fisherman can’t say for sure they can provide it.”

True, said Hemilright, but vendors who sell at seafood festivals know when those events are scheduled, and they can buy what they need in advance and freeze it.

Nobody is saying they have to, or even could, provide 100 percent N.C. seafood at all these events. But we feel like we are by far underrepresented at the table.

David Bush, biologist, N.C. Fisheries Association

Mike Pringle, chairman of the board of the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, said that event, going on its fifth year, was conceived, like many others, as a way to draw people to the area after peak season. More than 9,000 people attended last year, according to the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, and 15 local restaurants had booths, offering menu items such as “spider sliders” (a fried soft-shell crab) and shrimp-stuffed pretzels. Some were dedicated to serving local seafood.

Eighteen food vendor spots are available this year, and the festival last week added a list of regulations for applicants that includes this:

“Vendors will strive for 100 percent local caught seafood for all their food offerings,” and any changes must be approved in advance.

Pringle is hopeful that Outer Banks Catch will reconsider its decision to withdraw from the festival, where in past years the group provided educational events and other programming, including a mullet toss.

Sandy Semans Ross, who made the decision to withdraw after she took over as executive director of Outer Banks Catch, said consumers need to be educated about North Carolina seafood, coached to ask restaurants and retailers where their seafood is coming from and have an idea what is in season through the year so they can choose what’s coming in fresh. Requiring restaurants to serve some local seafood products at an annual seafood festival seems obvious, Ross said, in a region where commercial fishing is the second-largest industry behind tourism and has its roots in the earliest interactions between Native Americans and English colonists.

“It’s a no-brainer,” she said. “One reason people come here is that they expect fresh local seafood. It’s just a given. Local means local. It shouldn’t come from someplace else.”  

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

N.C. seafood festivals this year

▪ Sneads Ferry Shrimp Festival, Aug. 13-14, Sneads Ferry.

▪ Raleigh Seafood Festival, Sept. 3-4, N.C. State Fairgrounds, Raleigh.

▪ Day at the Docks, Sept. 16-17, Hatteras.

▪ North Carolina Seafood Festival, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, Morehead City waterfront.

▪ Pleasure Island Seafood, Blues & Jazz Festival, Oct. 8-9, Kure Beach.

▪ First Flight Rotary Oink & Oyster Roast, Oct. 9, Kitty Hawk.

▪ Outer Banks Seafood Festival, Oct. 15, Nags Head.

▪ Burke Arts Council October Oyster Outing, Oct. 15, Morganton.

▪ Pamlico-Tar River Foundation Annual Oyster Roast, Nov. 12, Washington.

▪ Airlie Oyster Roast, Oct. 21, Wilmington.

▪ North Carolina Oyster Festival, Oct. 15-16, Ocean Isle Beach.

Find out more

North Carolina Sea Grant has “local catch” cards and posters showing when certain seafood is “in season,” seafood recipe and other resources: