By JOY CRIST
Editor's Note: The Commission for Working Watermen reorganization meeting scheduled for 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 13, 2018 is cancelled due to the possibility of bad weather associated with Hurricane Florence.
On Thursday, September 13, a meeting will be held at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center at 7 p.m. to discuss the reorganization the Dare County Commission for Working Watermen.
Open to the public, (and especially commercial fishermen with new voices to add to the conversation), the meeting is the first step in reviving a commission that has been quietly overlooked for years.
This new interest in jump-starting the commission began with Susan West.
West, a journalistand researcher with a particular focus on commercial fishing communities, was fresh off a project for North Carolina Sea Grant, where she interviewed and talked with commercial fishermen, community leaders, and elected officials from Colington to southern Brunswick County. (A fantastic article by West about the project, which was called Next Generation Coastal Communities, can be found online here: https://ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/previous-issues/2018-2/spring-2018/charting-the-course/.)
During her extensive research, West uncovered a few themes that directed her focus to the Commission for Working Watermen – a commission that she actually used to cover regularly for, (you guessed it), Irene Nolan and the Island Free Press.
“[The commission] has been at the back of my mind for the last couple of years,” she said. “What happened to the commission? Why haven’t they met?”
“During [the project], I interviewed a lot of community leaders and elected officials, and something I heard over and over again from elected officials is that they often don’t hear about issues or problems until fishermen have been working on them for months, if not years.”
“This is a great way for the county to be more proactive in working on ideas to sustain the fishing industry in North Carolina well into the future,” she added. “The county does a great job supporting commercial fishermen on local issues, but a more proactive approach really would be valuable at this time.”
After talking with Hatteras Island County Commissioner Danny Couch, West spoke during the public comments section of the August 20 Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting in regards to revisiting the Commission for Working Watermen.
“My understanding is that the commission was never disbanded, but has been dormant the past several years,” she said at the meeting. “I would like to see if we can revive the Working Watermen Commission to bring some of the new, younger fishermen – the next generation of leaders - to the table.”
The Dare County Commission for Working Watermen, which originally had six members, has technically been around for more than a decade.
The commission did a lot of good while it was active, too. It helped initiative and launch the now highly-recognized Outer Banks Catch organization, as well as the annual Outer Banks Seafood Festival, which is happening again next month.
But the commission stopped holding regular meetings around December 2012, with little fanfare, and has been somewhat forgotten about as more pressing issues came to the surface over the years.
There’s not really a singular and concrete reason why the original commission faded away. Commissioner Couch theorizes that storms likely played a role. “We had Hurricane Irene in 2011, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and then Arthur in 2014, and Matthew in 2016 – it’s hard to do business when you are getting smacked by Mother Nature on a regular basis,” he said. “Re-building your home and your fishing equipment has to come first.”
There’s also the fact that members on the original commission went on to lend their voices, support and insight to other organizations, including Outer Banks Catch and North Carolina Watermen United.
But after West shared her comments at the August 20 BOC meeting, the ball started to roll quickly on a county level.
At the next BOC meeting on September 4, County Commissioner Steve House decided to step up to the plate to tackle the reorganization of the “new” commission.
House says the project is in line with his views on the commercial fishing industry, and he is excited to move forward.
“I have always been involved with commercial fishing and the regulations that come with it,” said House. “Ever since I’ve been elected, that’s been one of my main stances – [focusing on] working watermen.”
And House echoes the sentiments of West, Couch, and other folks involved with the revitalization of the commission – a new commission means an opportunity to recruit new voices.
“Working on the Sea Grant project, I talked with a younger generation of fishermen in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and their insight, knowledge, and commitment to making a go of it in becoming fishermen really struck me,” said West. “I thought it would be a great idea if the County Commission could be revised with new voices, and brought back to life.”
It’s a potential step in combatting what is known as the “Graying of the Fleet” phenomenon. The average age of commercial fishermen working in the Pamlico Sound is 54-years-old, and it’s essential to support the next generation of fishermen so that the vocation literally doesn’t die out.
House also sees an opportunity for the commission to add more clout when it comes to legislative issues on a state-wide level. “We’re definitely looking for the younger watermen, because we do know that a lot of the older watermen are in other commissions and organizations, and we’re looking forward to hearing a new voice,” he said, citing examples of organizations – like the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina – where members play similar roles in additional and closely-related commissions. “When they say to [to the state legislators] that this organization and that organization endorses a bill [or initiative], the folks in Raleigh know that it’s coming from the same people. If we have an organization with different people than Watermen United or Outer Banks Catch, it makes a different impact moving forward, and adds another voice.”
There’s also the added bonus of bringing the conversation of commercial fishing into the spotlight on a regular basis.
“I could see the commission working to build partnerships with other groups in the county and state with similar interests,” said West. “Heightening communications between those groups and between communities, and reaching out to better explain some of the issues facing the fishing industry - That’s always a huge challenge.”
“There are all sorts of opportunities out there, and the Working Watermen Commission is a great way to expand and strengthen networks,” she added. The commission could be a source you could go to for information.”
The outline for the upcoming September 13 meeting is lax, simply because the new commission has yet to form and take shape.
House sees adding an extra seat to the commission – from six members to seven – to avoid ties on future decisions, and also proposed that this extra seat be a fish dealer representative.
But other than these initial minor changes, both he and County Commissioner Couch agree that it’s up to the fishermen themselves to dictate the direction moving forward.
“I believe we need to leave it to the experts – they know what their needs are,” said Couch. “They don’t need a political entity telling them what to do. We need to be all ears and attentive to the needs of our working watermen, and leave our agendas out of it. Fishing is political enough as it is, so our role is a supporting role.”
There’s a general county guideline already in place for the purpose of the Commission for Working Watermen, which is one of the few things leftover from the original group. That statement reads as follows:
The purpose of the group is to protect and enhance the commercial fishing industry in Dare County. The Commission monitors and advises the Board of Commissioners regarding pending or proposed laws, rules, regulations, fishery management plans and coastal habitat plans, as they relate to commercial fishing in the County.
It’s a broad goal, but it allows for a lot of leeway. And everyone involved – from West to the county commissioners – have high hopes that the Working Watermen Commission Version 2.0 will generate a lot of interest, insight, and some much-needed support for folks who take an inherent risk to spend their lives working on the water.
“I think the Working Watermen Commission fits into the idea of keeping our heritage alive,” said Couch. “The heritage does have an appeal to our vacationers. They are not interested in seeing these big consolidated fish companies – they want to know about regular people like themselves who are on the water. It’s one of the oldest vocations in this country, and I think the Working Watermen Commission will do a good job in holding with that tradition of fishing families.”
TO FIND OUT MORE:
The reorganizational meeting for the Dare County Commission for Working Watermen will be held on Thursday, September 13, at 7 p.m. at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center on 23186 Myrna Peters Road in Rodanthe.
Applications will be available for potential commission members at the meeting, as well as online. Interested applicants can also reach out to Commissioner Steve House at Steve.House@darenc.com