HARKERS ISLAND — North Carolina’s First Lady Kristin Cooper spent her Saturday morning on Harkers Island listening to the concerns of local fishermen on topics ranging from Hurricane Florence recovery to state regulations.
The event was a joint effort between the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper and the White Oak-New Riverkeeper Alliance. Its purpose, according to Larry Baldwin, Crystal Coast waterkeeper, was to bring the needs and concerns of small fishing communities, like those Down East, to the attention of Gov. Roy Cooper.
Event organizers believe that short of speaking directly to the governor himself, speaking to the Ms. Cooper is the best method to do so.
“I had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Cooper, about a year-and-a-half ago, in Raleigh,” Mr. Baldwin said. “She talked about wanting to get out in the state and (I said), ‘We’ve got a place you have to get to.’”
Months after meeting Ms. Cooper, Hurricane Florence made landfall in Carteret County in September 2018, leaving a lasting impact on areas Down East. It’s for this reason Mr. Baldwin said Saturday’s event is of particular importance.
“We wanted kind of a listening, conversation-type thing,” Mr. Baldwin said. “Just for her to get to know and get to hear a little bit about Down East and the fishing community down here.”
Adam Tyler, Lauren Salter, Sandra Gaskill and Bradley Styron were the speakers at Saturday’s event, while Mr. Baldwin directed the conversation with different topics. After a brief introduction, they dove in by giving their opinion on the most pressing issues facing the region. coastline erosion and inlets were the consensus among the four speakers.
“We lost a lot of trees in the Down East community there,” Mr. Tyler said. “Nearly hundreds of thousands of dead trees.”
Ms. Gaskill said trees provide an important service to the ecosystem, such as bolstering the area from erosion.
“I think the loss of our trees and (the erosion) of the borders that we have is a big factor,” said Ms. Gaskill, who also touched on Hurricane Dorian’s impact on Ocracoke Island.
“I know Ocracoke got it really bad,” she said of the storm that brushed up the East Coast early this month.
Mr. Styron said inlets, like Beaufort, are necessary for fishing communities like Harkers Island. He added that with the state’s waters flowing eastward toward the sea, it’s easy to blame Carteret County and other coastal communities for pollution.
“We’re inundated with everything from the western part of the state,” Mr. Styron said. “They like to put the blame on us, but it’s hard to blame the people at the bottom for what’s going on at the top.”
Other speakers touched on pollution, as well.
“Water quality is really, really important to me,” Mr. Tyler said, adding that as an oyster harvester, his livelihood is dependent on the quality of local waters.
Ms. Gaskill said as regulations continue to discourage fishermen from fishing, regulators overlook how the workers positively impact the environment.
“In 2019, the grass (along some coastlines) is dead, it’s gone,” Ms. Gaskill said. “I think, with all my heart, pollution (is to blame). A commercial fisherman is like a farmer. If you’re a farmer, you’re clearing that land. And a fisherman is a farmer of the water.”
Hurricane Florence also impacted fishing in the area.
“I’m not a fisherman … but I observed that it takes a lot to rebuild what you lose,” Ms. Salter said. “It’s one of the biggest challenges for fishermen.”
Mr. Styron agreed, adding that part of the community is still working to recover.
“Florence had a devastating effect,” Mr. Styron said. “We had a lot of structural damage and some that hasn’t been repaired yet. It does take a toll.”
Ms. Salter and other speakers said the storm showed how resilient the area is, adding that “the silver lining is you get to see people at their best.”
Ms. Gaskill agreed.
“We were 11 days without electricity,” Ms. Gaskill said. “There were so many, many people that came in to help.”
Ms. Cooper also took the microphone and addressed the bulk of the topics. She said she and her family, while not from Carteret County, enjoy coming to the area.
She also said she and her husband understand the importance of the fishing industry both to Carteret County and the rest of the state and understand the implications of Hurricane Florence.
“It used to be that you would have hurricanes like this once a generation,” Ms. Cooper said. “You could have the rest of your life recovering from it. It takes years to recover from it, it does take years and years.”
In regards to environmental concerns, Ms. Cooper said the governor shares many of the local worries.
“We’re doing our best right now, clean water and clean air are huge priorities for us right now,” Ms. Cooper said.
She also addressed concerns about new state regulations designed to drastically reduce fishing of staples like flounder.
“I don’t know if it helps to know that you guys are important to our economy…not just for fishing but for our tourism economy,” Ms. Cooper said.
After the event, Ms. Cooper met local fisherman Albert Gaskill and toured his vessel.
“We need some help down here,” Mr. Gaskill said. “I try to protect the water. I don’t want to kill everything in the water.”
Ms. Cooper said she plans on relaying all that was discussed to the governor.
“I appreciate what you shared,” Ms. Cooper said. “I learned a lot and I’ll take it back to Raleigh.”
Contact Dean-Paul Stephens at 252-726-7081, ext. 232; email Dean@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @DeanPEStephens.