Storm's timing means income losses likely

Nets and buoys fill the end of a pier in Marshallberg Harbor where commercial fishing vessels await their next excursion. (Dylan Ray photo)

BEAUFORT — With Hurricane Florence’s effects still to be determined, commercial fishermen seem sure to have taken hard hits, short- and long-term.

Commercial fishermen are no strangers to losing time on the water because of bad weather. However, according to commercial fisherman Brent Fulcher, who owns and operates both Beaufort Inlet Seafood and B&J Seafood in New Bern, local fishermen lost more than just a day or two.  

“We lost one-and-a-half to two weeks of fishing,” Mr. Fulcher said. “A lot of people haven’t even been able to get back to work yet because they’re occupied with their personal recovery.”

Mr. Fulcher is also the chairman of the N.C. Fisheries Association, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the state’s seafood industry. Association Executive Director and commercial fisherman Glenn Skinner said there’s been a lot of damage to the commercial fishing infrastructure along the state coast, such as to fish houses.

“The biggest impacts will be to the fisheries this fall,” Mr. Skinner said. “We’ve been hearing lots of reports the shellfish are dying due to freshwater intrusion, and that fish are migrating out of the estuaries early. They won’t be back until next spring.”

Mr. Fulcher said one of the main causes of the intrusion that’s killing shellfish and driving away saltwater species of finfish is flood waters washing downstream to the coast from inland.

“Any shrimping has been pushed out into the ocean,” he said. “So have a lot of blue crabs.”

Mullet and flounder are among the finfish that have been driven out of a lot of estuarine waters because of the massive influx of freshwater from rain inland. Plus, Mr. Fulcher said flounder fishermen had to take up their nets to avoid losing them in the storm.

“Now, they need to get back out there, if they can, while they still have some time in the season,” he said.

The effects on the fisheries have come at a bad time. Mr. Skinner said a loss of income at this time of year, when fishermen need to be making money to live off of in the winter, can be “devastating.”

“In the winter, a lot of people fall back on oysters,” he said. “But now we don’t even know if there will even be an oyster season.”

Some shellfish growers managed to survive without too much damage to their leases. David “Clammerhead” Cessna, an oyster grower with about 19 acres leased in Newport River, North River, Bogue Sound and New River, said his own operation did “pretty good” weathering Florence.

“We suffered maybe 10 percent mortality (of their oysters),” Mr. Cessna said. “Many (shellfish growers) lost 50-60 percent.”

Mr. Cessna said most of his lost oysters were buried in sand. He said he doesn’t expect to see any later-date mortality among his shellfish.

“We were separated from our leases for about 3½ weeks,” Mr. Cessna said. “Now we’re picking up where we left off. It’s a loss we can absorb; we were pleasantly surprised… Now we’re just waiting for the waters to open (to shellfishing).”

While his leases weren’t damaged much, Mr. Cessna said his house and shop suffered heavy damage.   

The association is doing what it can to try and help fishermen seek state assistance to recover from Florence. Mr. Skinner said the association is putting together information packets to send to the N.C. General Assembly to show members the effects Florence had on the fishing industry.

“We’re hoping to see if there’s any financial assistance they can offer,” he said.

Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email mike@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt. 

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