“Live Crabs, $5.99 per pound” reads the sign hanging at Saltwater Seafood Market and Fry Shack in Raleigh, which on a good day sells 2,000 pounds of fish and shellfish.
Two years ago, that same North Carolina hard-shell blue crab cost just $2.99 per pound.
It’s a sign of a faltering North Carolina commercial fishing industry. A surge in prices has accompanied a drop in the state’s fish and shellfish harvest, which fell in 2013 for the fourth year in a row to the lowest in 10 years, according to a recent report from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.
The 50 million pounds of fish and shellfish North Carolina commercial fishermen landed in 2013 is 12 percent less than in 2012 and 21 percent down from the five-year average. But the value, close to $79 million, was the highest price per pound in a decade.
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Michael LaVecchia of Meat & Fish Co. in Charlotte says that tight quotas on most seafood in North Carolina waters have kept the prices up even as the catch goes down.
“It takes the same amount of fuel (to reach the fishing grounds), the same amount of ice, the same amount to pay the mates.” But because quotas are so much tighter, boats have to come back with less fish.
“There’s got to be a cap to what chefs are willing to pay,” says LaVecchia, who is running only a wholesale business while he plans to open a new retail fish store in Dilworth in the fall.
There are several reasons for the smaller catch, starting with a smaller number of active commercial fishermen, which is about two-thirds what it was a decade ago. Rising fuel costs, shoaling at Oregon Inlet and regulations that put some species of fish off-limits to commercial fishing for months at a time also contribute to fewer landings.
“You get tired of going out there and catching fish and throwing them away to satisfy regulation,” said Terry Pratt, a Bertie County resident who fishes in Albemarle Sound. He says he throws back about 1,000 pounds of striped bass, a fishery the division closed in April, for every few hundred pounds of perch or catfish.
Blue crabs scarcer
Blue crabs are not only more expensive than usual, they are hard to come by.
Still the biggest seafood catch in the state by weight and value, blue crab landings were down to 21 million pounds in 2013 from about 27 million pounds the year before. Except for 2007, that’s the smallest amount of blue crab landed in the state since 1977.
Fishermen are having trouble finding them, partly due to heavy rains that flood estuaries with freshwater, killing crabs and other saltwater species, said Stephen Taylor, a shellfish biologist in Wilmington who works for the Division of Marine Fisheries. The winters and springs in 2012 and 2013 were both very wet, Taylor said, taking a toll on crabs and deterring crabbers from getting out to work.
Another problem is a surge in population of red drum fish, which feed on blue crabs and grow up to 5 feet long. Last fall, fishermen hauled in so much red drum that they exceeded the state’s annual 250,000-pound limit, prompting regulators to stop catches. Red drum is illegal to catch until Sept. 1.
“There was just a lot of red drum,” said Alan Bianchi, a statistician with the fisheries division. “And they landed more than they were allotted for, and because of that, we had to shut it down for the rest of the year.”
Red drum not only eat crab, but they also get pulled up in large numbers with other catches such as southern flounder, one species that fishermen caught more of last year than in 2012. The “by-catching” of red drum is a problem when it’s illegal to keep.
Alison Willis, who fishes with her husband, Eddie, out of Carteret County, said, “(Red drum) are sort of everywhere at this point, and very difficult for fishermen to avoid.”
The Willises catch mainly shrimp, another commodity that dropped off in 2013. North Carolina commercial fishermen landed 4.9 million pounds of shrimp in 2013, down from 6.1 million pounds in 2012. Shrimpers say regulations that limit where they can catch shrimp were tough on the business.
Trish Murphy, a biologist with the fisheries division, said to protect shrimp numbers, authorities shut certain areas down until shrimp can rebound. Last year, the number of brown shrimp was down, possibly because of wet weather, Murphy said.
“Rainfall can have an impact,” she said. But she said fewer fishermen were out making the effort to catch them. “That could be several things, like fuel cost and competition.”
But Alison Willis said their business did fine last year and that they never have any trouble selling their shrimp. “The demand for local, it’s endless,” she said. “People want local shrimp.”
Part of the reason for their success is their involvement with Core Sound Seafood, a community-supported fishery that helps get their product to what Willis called a “niche” inland market.
Fishermen: Rules hurt
Fishermen also face obstacles such as the shallow waters of Oregon Inlet, which, just a few feet deep, limits navigation. That may have contributed to the drastic drop in summer flounder landed in the state. In 2013, fishermen landed 541,661 pounds of summer flounder, nearly half of the 1,087,427 pounds in 2012.
Bianchi said some fishermen are landing their fish in Virginia to avoid the shallow inlet, while some have just not gone offshore to fish.
Many fishermen say the biggest obstacle to their business is the government regulations meant to prevent overfishing.
Once fishermen reach an annual quota on fish, even if it’s just after a few days, the state shuts down the season. In addition, trip limits, closures of some habitat, and caps on the number of pounds a fisherman can bring to the dock at a time all make fishing less efficient or add to the cost.
“The government mainly put us out of business with regulations and laws,” said Tommy Everett, a fourth-generation fisherman who lives in Sneads Ferry, about 45 miles north of Wilmington. Everett owned LT Everett and Sons Seafood until Dec. 31, when he had to close his doors.
“They just won’t let us fish,” Everett said. “People just can’t make it.”
Everett’s father opened the business in 1942, and it shipped fish to Boston, Philadelphia and New York City. But, he said, with tightening restrictions on where fishermen can fish, how many fish they can catch and more, “there was no way to pay your bills.”
Last year and 2012, he said, were especially bad years for the amount you could catch.
Charlotte’s LaVecchia says the only hope for lower seafood prices would be if all the regulations eventually produce healthier numbers, allowing the quotas to be raised again.
“The fishermen I talk to are saying they’re catching their quotas within two or three days now,” he says.
Commercial fisherman Chris McCaffity, who works out of Morehead City and is a vocal opponent of overstrict regulation, said the total closures lead to waste, because fish caught during the closures must be tossed back even if they are dead.
One solution, he said, would be to enact partial fishery closures, which would allow fishermen to catch restricted species all year, just in smaller numbers.
“We need to work together, fishery managers and fishermen.” Charlotte Observer staff writer Kathleen Purvis contributed to this story.