Thursday, May 14, 2015

NC: Ocracoke Co-op fishery

     Welcome back to Ocracoke North Carolina.  This island runs east by north-east as it moves out to the tip of Cape Hatteras.

     The island itself is only accessible by boat or private small plane.  Ferries run southward to and from Cedar Island ($ 15) or northward to and from Hatteras (Free.)

     Ocracoke village itself occupies only a small part of the southern tip of the island.  The majority of the island is a federal nature preserve.  Southward beyond the village the sand bank runs out about another three miles - although at this point it is only a small spit of land a few yards wide.

     As we saw yesterday, life here centers on the harbor and a point of land just adjacent to the harbor where dozens of locals gather each evening to watch the sun set.

     There isn't that much developed land, and what is developed is  pretty well used up.  So most visitors choose to walk the town or rent another mode of transport.  Here are a few . .     

     Bicycles are big here, but golf carts are pretty common too.  

     Just outside of town the national park lands begin . . .

     . . . and about two miles up is a large campground sheltered just beneath the sea-side dunes.

     I always appreciate the ingenuity of folks that build their own campers.  I should take more photos of them. 

      But people who lived remote from society have a bit of ingenuity themselves.

     People are multidimensional, a remnant of times when you had to make do with what was already here.  Until recent times there was no ferry to run and get groceries or lumber or anything. 

     Things get used in ways you aren't used to seeing.  Here is the back enc of a pickup set up as a trailer.  I am not sure what they do with the front porch area.

     Besides the wild horses, there are only a few mammals out on these islands.  Raccoons, rabbits people and Nutria.

     Nutria are large South American critters that were brought here in the late 1800's.  They are not small, with adults averaging 15 - 20 lbs.  The idea was that they would be farmed for their furs.  Well, that proposition didn't work out so well, so they either got let go into the wild or they escaped during storms.  They look like a cross between a big beaver and a guinea pig, and are pretty destructive to wetlands.  I have been unable to photograph one - if I see one I will try to be quick on the trigger.

     Fishing has always been a big part of the economy here - if for nothing else for sustenance.  When hurricane Isabel slammed through here in 2003 and cut the bridges to Hatteras out, the people were fishing the next day.  It is that important to both the economy and the culture. 

    Not too long ago an Ocracoke boy named Morty Gaskill gained local notoriety when he opened a fishing business at age 13.

Photo from museum

     As they are everywhere, fishermen are fiercely independant folks, but they are also a crucial part of these small local economies.

photo from museum

    Ten years ago, Ocracoke fishermen got thrown into a panic.  It seems that the island's only fishery was put up for sale.  At the time it was run down enough that most figured it would just go out of business.  This would leave the local fishermen no way to get their catch to market.

     A grass roots effort came about, and today the fishery here is a community owned co-op.

     This was a big deal to these folks.  The fishermen were nervous about having to rely on a community owned market, but they were more worried about having nowhere to sell their wares.  

     We meet two of the people who make this work today - Pattie and Hardy Plyler.

     Hardy is a commercial fisherman who has found himself in the role of fishery manager.  Pattie is the face of the operation - she is behind the counter in the retail sales shop.  Without the retail sales the operation couldn't stay open, and many folks say they buy their seafood here just because Pattie is so personable.

     A brief note here - in these small towns I have to create a "circle" of people to interview.  The problem is that no one will say anything about what they do - they just want to express how much everyone else does.  So, in order to find out what a person's contributions have been you have to talk to other folks, and when you gradually make your way back around to who you started with you have your "circle."

     David graduated college at University of North Carolina with a bachelors back in 1972, but decided he loved the sea and came back to this coast to spend his life on the water.

A seagull stealing a scrap on the fishery dock

    Hardy talks about how many families the fishery had raised.  In these small coastal communities, there is a lot more to one of these fish houses than meets the eye.  For the fishermen, it is often their bank.  When they have to buy a motor for their boat or their nets wear out, they often go to the fishery for a loan against their future catches.

     The community gathers around the fish house too.  Locals always want to know who caught what - after all, its often what is for dinner.  Very often the meals served in homes and restaurants were swimming in nearby waters that very morning.

     But between increasing regulations, higher fuel prices and increases in unregulated imported seafood the industry was under tremendous pressure.  The area had already suffered the loss of about eighty percent of its fishermen over the last decade.  So, when a few locals came up with the idea of putting together a co-op that returned any profits to the fishermen, Pennie and Hardy jumped on board.

     The coop has been a huge local success, and it even has purchased a refrigerated truck that can carry each day's catch across on the ferry to markets inland.

     Fishermen that I talk to all loathe to discuss the regulations that keep putting more folks out of business but one thing in North Carolina is that all feel the state is suddenly against them.  There was an administration change a few years back that has brought folks into power who seem to be openly hostile to business.  

     Just last week this current North Carolina administration again made national headlines.  It seems they passed a law that said there will be no discussions held or efforts made that forecast a sea level rise exceeding eight inches over the next 85 years.  Everyone along the coast is much comforted that North Carolina has passed a law banning excessive sea level rise.  

     Well, there is an old saying that God doesn't call the qualified, he rather qualifies the ones he calls.  That seems to have been the case with the development of this fishery co-op.  Meet Robin Payne.

     Robin grew up in farming community well inland.  About twenty years ago she felt strongly drawn to move out here, which made no sense.  She had a degree in interior design and another in historical preservation, and neither skill is in demand here.  She gets terribly seasick, so she had no idea why she was supposed to move here.

     After several years living here the issue with the fishery came up, and she felt herself compelled to do something.  She got some books and read up on topics dealing with community resources, and decided that a 501c-3 foundation had to be set up.  She didn't know a thing about doing that, but researched and started moving forward with it.

     She says from there the thing snowballed in incredible ways.  No sooner would she fret about what she was supposed to do next or was stumped about how to get something done than the phone would ring, something would show up in the mail or someone would show up in town that had the precise piece of the puzzle that she needed.  She talked about finding that when she gets out of the way stuff comes through.

     She talks about things that far exceed the bounds of coincidence happening again and again - on a seemingly daily basis.  One example was when it was determined that they needed to put together local recipes to promote the idea that seafood was a crucial part of the local culture.  The next day, on a ferry, comes a nationally acclaimed lady who writes articles on local culinary techniques.  She did all the researched and everything emerged just as it was needed.

     Robin, who describes herself as being so shy as to almost be antisocial found herself with the strength to converse with all manner of groups - media, locals, teachers, fishermen, legislature - on and on it went.

     Of course, Robin wants to talk about everyone else's efforts, but she was the driving force behind making this happen.  As a result, thirty families still retain their traditions and are able to put food on their tables, clothe and educate their children and provide for themselves in the manner they are best equipped to.  Robin does make it clear though that she has found that life is at its best when she can serve others.

     The foundation and the fishery are just the beginning of the story.  There are numerous things Robin has been able to accomplish since.  There is an old historical house she was able to save and turn into a free museum.  Another wharf was saved and turned into a "Working Watermen's" museum.  The community has come forth with all manner or artifacts to serve as exhibits, and there are all kinds of historical and informative displays and literature that locals have put together to assist anyone who really wants to know about this area's culture and history.  There is a town square with parking spaces and public restroom facilities put together.  A public radio station for the island has been formed.  And there are new projects in the works - it will be fun when we come back six years from now to see where they have progressed to.

Working Fishermen's museum

    I want to go back to the topic of current trends in the North Carolina's state government. The ferry system is the life's blood here - without it almost all traffic would cease.  This holds true for several other communities out here on the coast as well.       

Ferry Docks in Ocracoke

     I have heard a common complaint from citizens back in Wilmington, on Cedar Island and here.  The state is letting the ferries go.

     Tourism is a huge feature in North Carolinas economy - it is estimated that last year visitors spent over 19 Billion dollars here in North Carolina.  This translates into a Billion in state tax revenue and 600 Million in local tax revenue, and a very large percentage of those dollars were spent out in these coastal areas.  

     But people are nervous.  Hull inspections, which are supposed to be done once every five years on these craft have been put off to the last minute.  Maintenance is falling behind.  And the local small businesses seem to feel that the state government is becoming hostile to them - even though they campaigned on the grounds that they were are the group that is friendly to business.   There are a lot of people out here that say they will be looking for big changes in the next election cycle.

     About those museum pieces - here are a few pieces I found unique.  This first one is a ___________ - can you guess?

     It is an old "anemometer" - a device that can be held up by hand to measure the direction and intensity of the wind.

     Ever get sick of your small child escaping from their crib or play pen?  Well, here is the "Kiddie Coop."

     Certain months of the year the biting insects can get ferocious out here.  Thus, a screened in crib makes good sense.

     And for the coast guard and government workers who had to work in the soft mud marshes around the island?

     Marsh shoes - kind of like snow shoes but a bit different.  

         And here is quite a trophy.

    And every year the island has a contest - someone help me here - it is either a sailing contest or fishing contest.  Anyway, this is the Edward Teach trophy, featuring Blackbeard and the lighthouse.  Quite a handsome trophy if you ask me - it rivals any that we saw in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

     Before heading on up the coast, we are going to spend tomorrow in a sister city to Ocracoke that was abandoned just a few years ago.  Meanwhile, an obligatory shot of the beach:

     Today's "Faces in the Crowd" - you already saw it a bit ago, but I had to zoom in on this face.

     Either that moped seat is too small or island traffic has him frustrated - not sure which.

     Today's parting shot is a table top in a local restaurant.

     Now, I know a lot of you had to play one high-school sport or another.  I just cannot picture a high school football team being intimidated by the mantra "Fear The Pod."  Am I missing something here?

     And on personal notes, I found a great spot to park and sleep here.  

    The van has vent windows in the back, and when I can get them pointed toward the wind the breeze makes me sleep like a baby.  And the noise of surf doesn't hurt a bit either.

Click Here if you can contribute a few dollars to help me with this journey, Click Here to email me and Click Here to read today's reflection.

Have an awesome day !!

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