When Clayton Fulcher Seafood Company closes, Luther L. Smith & Son Fish House will be the last seafood packing house in Atlantic, a community in Carteret County’s Down East area.

The closing of seafood businesses is a growing trend, according to a North Carolina Sea Grant study. The report — conducted by cultural anthropologist Barbara Garrity-Blake and Sea Grant seafood technology specialist Barry Nash — found that one-third of the state’s fish houses have closed since 2002.

Only 78 of 1 17 fish houses open in 2000 were still in operation in 2006. “This represents a 33 percent reduction in seafood packing capacity since 2000 — most of which occurred in the central region,” the authors say.

Researchers attribute the decline to globalization.

“Growth in a worldwide seafood market has not yet expanded opportunities for North Carolina fishermen,” the report says. “Rather, the value of domestic-caught seafood had declined due to a flood of less expensive, farm-raised imports into the United State markets.”

Declines have occurred in the shrimp and blue crab fisheries. “The majority of the state’s picking houses have closed since the late 1990s,” the report says.

“Of 45 certified plants in 1982, 17 operated in 2005, and 13 in 2006,” according to the N.C. Shellfish Sanitation Section.

Labor shortages, stricter fishing regulations, declining water quality, decreased fish stocks and development pressures also contributed to the decline.

“Fish house operators who lease their properly were most vulnerable to loss of waterfront access,” the authors explain.

“Fishermen using historical/established but informally held landings, creeks and community harbors also were at high risk of losing water access. Properly owners faced rising property taxes in addition to declining incomes.”

Despite problems in the seafood industry, the report finds the industry is not collapsing. However, it is “undergoing a painful transformation that could result in a very different commercial fishing model compared to the past.”

For the seafood industry to remain viable, the researchers offer several recommendations — from continued improvement in water quality of coastal areas to increased availability of water access and supporting infrastructure.

They also encourage communities to create a market identity.

For example, Carteret Catch — a county-wide branding program that promotes local seafood — was funded by the Ford Foundation and implemented through the Southern Rural Development Center, Rural Community College Initiative. It is a collaborative effort between Carteret Community College, North Carolina Sea Grant, North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina State University, NC Cooperative Extension and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Consumers are eager to buy seafood that comes from local fishermen who use sustainable harvest practices,” Nash says.

To find out more about Carteret Catch, visit:

This article was published in the High Season 2007 issue of Coastwatch.

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