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Blended Waters: A candid can of worms

Ever since I was in the fourth grade growing up in Manteo, where my Dad was born and raised, I was inspired to love our watermen. Back then in the early 60s, I knew he was all about it, not only as a sport where he had fished for tarpon in the Florida Keys (where I was born and before he retired from the U.S. Coast Guard), fishing from a skiff at Lake Okeechobee or catching a record cubera snapper with a hand line, Daddy was all about it. He loved the challenge that a trip to the ocean, sound, creek, etc. presented and he prided himself in his yield on a regular basis.

When it came to commercial fishing “back in the day” he didn’t personally do all that much – a little here a little there – mostly because his real focus was on designing and having built a charter fishing vessel to operate out of Oregon Inlet. And it wasn’t too long before he accomplished just that. At the time, there were no large boat builders on the Outer Banks, so after he sketched out the lines and elevations of his “dream” boat, he commissioned a boat builder on Harker’s Island to build it for him, which was later named “Playboy” (needless to say Mama wasn’t thrilled!) However, in the meantime, he ran some fishing charters out of Manns Harbor in the Pamlico Sound and the Alligator River. But hands down, no question about it, Daddy was adamant that the seafood we brought to our table was FRESH. If it came from his own catch or from Willie Crane’s Fish House, it would be clean, stored and iced properly and FRESH! In fact, I used to jump in his old truck and ride to Manns Harbor with him when he’d buy rock fish that Mama made with white potatoes, onions and fried cracklings – yum! Sometimes if he hadn’t caught them himself, he’d buy a sturgeon (they were ugly buggars, but big and tasty to most folks’ liking). Regardless if he was fishing for flounder, trout, blues or whatever it didn’t matter, he loved fish, shrimp, crab or oysters as the center of our dinner meals.

Like most people, we love our seafood, don’t we? We love our fish fried, broiled, baked, stewed and nowadays, everybody’s crazy over raw (sushi), right? We love our shrimp fried, steamed, stir fried, ground into shrimp burgers, sautéed and added to rice and pasta dishes, right? Our crabs, we love steamed in a big ole pot with Old Bay seasoning piled high on newspaper where we can pick ’em, eat ’end and enjoy the heck out of ’em while sitting amid good friends and family telling fish tales to beat the band. Oysters? Well, we all know what they say about oysters! We like them as oysters Rockefeller on the half shell with a bottle of Tabasco sauce on the side; fried crispy with French fries, slaw and cornbread, or again, raw where you get that clean, salty taste that tickles your innards!

My point? Whatever seafood we love and no matter the way we like it cooked, I think it goes (or should without saying) that we like and WANT IT TO BE FRESH! In the coming weeks and Blended Waters columns, I’m going to talk about the fishing industry. I’m going to address the topics that our watermen (and women) care about and I’m going to help the masses who read my column to understand that unless you catch your own seafood, it’s important – no, imperative – that we support in every way possible our working watermen (women) and their families.

It may be shocking to some who may read this column – some who have decided through unsubstantiated “truths” that our watermen are rapists and pillagers of the ocean floor, that they don’t care about conservation and laws to protect endangered species and, of course, we’re all entitled to our opinions about that and everything else in life. But I’m here to tell you that I know first-hand and unequivocally that most of our watermen greatly value our natural resources, and that they care about conservation under fair and reasonable conditions. And if you aren’t personally a proponent of commercial fishing, perhaps what I’ll have to say in the coming column your mind won’t change no matter what true stories or accounts I will share with my readers and that’s okay too.

But this is the deal. Our watermen, no matter what they catch, go to work in extreme conditions at one of the most dangerous professions there is to support their families, to honor their heritage and traditions and to provide FRESH, clean seafood to be enjoyed by all. They are a special breed; they are a brotherhood; they have experience beyond measure; they are specialists in their profession; they have contributed greatly to our local economy, to our job force and they have owned and operated businesses across Dare County, the state of North Carolina and the entire Eastern Seaboard.

They are not dumb, dumbs who smell like fish and don’t know how to do anything else. Many are well educated and have graduated high school, went to college and returned home to do what they love – to fish and operate their seafood businesses. Some are women . . . women who have worked alongside their dads or brothers or husbands, etc. and worked hard. They’re tough, strong women who can hold their own and they, too, have a great love for the water and this industry. They have helped their families unload fish at the dock, cull and clean fish, haul nets and longline gear, hoist shrimp nets, mend nets and the weather – even bad weather – usually doesn’t hold them back either.

When I considered what to name this new weekly column, Blended Waters was suggested by a local waterman, serious advocate for our commercial fishing industry and Capt. Dewey Hemilright. He said, it has “to do with all types of water that many different species of seafood are caught in.” It’s perfect and not only does it refer to blended waters, but to me its significance goes further. This column will blend all of the facets regarding the watermen themselves, their skills, commitment, sacrifice, goals and their hope that we may not be able to agree totally on some things, but that we need to protect their ability to produce. Who would prefer to buy to cook at home, eat at a restaurant, etc. seafood that has been treated to “look” fresh . . . that may appear suitable when in fact it is bought from other countries that do no perhaps require or meet the specifications of seafood we process here? It’s ridiculous! Thank the Lord most of our local restaurants and grocery stores deal with local seafood businesses and you do consume, F-R-E-S-H seafood. However, if we don’t stop and consider all the ramifications of unjustified data, reports, scrutiny of our seafood catches, we may one day regrettably feel the phrase “be careful what you wish for”

My good friend who passed away some years ago, Bobby Roughton, once told me, “Marsha, nothing compares to the power of the pen.” I’ll never forget that. Another old saying it’s the “landmark of life” and “the tongue of the soul.” My desire is to write responsibly, respectfully and truthfully. Since 2012, I’ve written the weekly column Gig Line in honor of our veterans and my late husband, Billy – a Vietnam veteran. That column is found in the Wednesday edition of The Coastland Times newspaper and both columns will be available online. Now, this new weekly column will honor our watermen, their families, the businesses that “keep on keeping on” despite the attempts from special interest groups to diminish, overshadow and all but restrict fishing practices on our coasts. Let me say this again . . . responsible watermen welcome fair conservation based on truth, real facts and data that reflects what they see every single day.

If you wish to write to me about a waterman (or woman) that you’d like to read about, a story you’d like to have told on the topic please email me at hookedonwatermen@gmail.com I welcome your feedback and I can tell you now that a lot of new plans are underway for more public education, activities and opportunities for helping to grow interest, support and education regarding the commercial fishing industry and why we need to protect it.

READ MORE IN OUR ON THE WATER SECTION.

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