This article was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Coastwatch.

It’s late afternoon dockside at the Hatteras Harbor Marina. Excitement ripples through a gathering crowd waiting for a string of for-hire charter boat captains and their fishing parties to return from plying the Gulf Stream bounty. The impromptu welcome committee moves from slip to slip with each arrival to glimpse the day’s catch — murmuring, cheering and snapping photos of the fish being displayed like shiny trophies.

Some in the crowd are locals making casual rounds of village marinas for fishing updates — and fish stories. Others are out-of-towners with more immediate interest in fish landings: They have signed up for a charter boat fishing excursion the next day or so.

Each year, the for-hire recreational fishing industry attracts thousands of avid anglers to North Carolina fishing communities from the Outer Banks to Morehead City to Sunset Beach. And while skillful for-hire captains help happy clients bring in the fish, they also help to bring millions of dollars to local and state coffers. A recent North Carolina Fishery Resource Grant (FRG) report puts the for-hire economic impact at nearly $668 million for the 2007-2008 survey study year.

Meanwhile, expectations run high when Capt. Rom Whitaker guides his 53-foot craft, Release, into position at the Hatteras marina. Soon, there is a chorus of “oohs” and “ahs” as First Mate J.D. Payne tosses the day’s catch, one by one, onto the dock: First, a raft of the usually elusive tilefish, and then a lone amberjack.

“At 21 pounds, it may be some sort of record for the tilefish,” Whitaker muses as he and Payne weigh the largest tile.

Clearly, it was an impressive day aboard Release for long-time friends Elena and Bobby Bussey of Florida and Ivy and Ben Carey of Virginia.

“We love to fish,” Elena Bussey exclaims. “We meet here at Hatteras twice a year, every year, and always fish with Captain Rom.”

“In fact, we plan to go out with Rom again tomorrow,” notes Bobby Bussey. “We always do two days offshore with Rom.”

This year, the couples’ weeklong stay was part reunion and part birthday celebration. “Not that anyone needs an excuse to come to North Carolina to fish,” Ivy Carey adds.


Turns out, the Busseys and the Careys fit a profile that emerges from the passenger survey segment of the FRG study.

They are among some 431,000 passionate fishermen and fisherwomen — many from out of state — who return year after year to fish with a favorite for-hire captain in a favorite coastal town.

The study project, Economic Impacts and Recreation Value of the North Carolina Far-Hire Fishing Fleet, takes a coast-wide look at operations of some 754 for-hire vessels during the study year: 27 head boats that may be licensed to carry up to 100 passengers; and 727 charter boats that typically carry four to six passengers.

On the passenger side of the ledger, according to the FRG study:

On the for-hire vessel side of the ledger, the study shows:


“We knew the for-fire industry has an economic impact, we just didn’t know how much. When you see the figures in black and white — nearly $668 million — it’s impressive, very impressive,” Whitaker says.

Whitaker and fellow Hatteras charter captain Ernie Foster initiated the FRG study on behalf of North Carolina Watermen United (NCWU), an organization formed to address the needs of people who make a living on the water.

Now, the watermen hope to use the economic impact figures to build a case for expanding the N.C. Marine Fisheries (MFC) Commission to include a dedicated seat for the for-hire recreational fishing sector.

The nine-member commission includes spots for commercial and recreational anglers, but Whitaker and Foster regard the for-hire sector as a distinct entity within the fishing community — one with unique issues and concerns. A dedicated seat, the watermen say, would ensure that the collective for-hire voice is heard as part of all fishery policy discussions.

“North Carolina Watermen United wanted to have a way to quantitatively demonstrate what they knew from their own experience — that the for-hire industry makes a significant contribution to the economy of coastal communities and the state,” explains Sara Mirabilio, Sea Grant fisheries specialist, who helped guide the FRG research project.

Established and funded by the N.C. General Assembly and administered by North Carolina Sea Grant, the FRG research program pairs fishermen with university scientists to investigate problems and test solutions in fishing communities and seafood businesses across the state.

“Sara was instrumental in bringing the principals together for the study,” says Chris Dumas, professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who was lead author on the report.

In collaboration with the watermen and Mirabilio, Dumas and John Whitehead, previously at UNCW and now at Appalachian State University, designed the comprehensive survey, organized the collection of data, and crunched numbers.

“We were interested in doing the project because we felt that the state has a handle on the economics of commercial fishing, but not the for-hire recreational fishing segment,” Dumas explains. The survey, one of the first comprehensive economic surveys to tease out this specific recreational fishing segment, could become a model for other states.

The study shows that thousands of people come to North Carolina just for the for-hire fishing experience, Dumas notes.

“We have known from our experiences that people from all over the country — and the world — know about North Carolina’s spectacular offshore fishing,” says Brian Efland, Sea Grant’s marine conservation and enterprise specialist based in Morehead City. The FRG survey underscores what that means in terms of the industry’s economic importance, he says.

Efland worked behind the scenes to urge central coast boat captains’ participation in the for-hire survey. “The captains in our area are not that open to discussing finances. Unlike their Outer Banks’ counterparts, there is more competition than comradeship here,” he says. “So, I tried to show the importance of their input.”

Mirabilio says training and patience were essential for the survey team members asking boat captains to complete nine-pages of questions that reflected the seasonality of the industry.

“It also required trust, because the survey was asking very detailed financial information,” she adds.

That’s where people like Jess Hawkins and Melba Milak come in.

Hawkins, a marine biologist and retired 30-year veteran of the N .C. Division of Marine Fisheries and former member of the MFC, is well known among fishermen. He surveyed charter captains along the central coast. Hawkins says the FRG survey was an excellent way to capture the socio-economic information required for developing fishery management plans. The beauty of an FRG, he believes, is that it combines scientific methodology with real world experience.

Milak, now executive secretary for NCWU, is one of the “star” survey takers at several Outer Banks marinas. “I learned that folks who come to the Outer Banks to fish come from diverse income categories.

Some passengers could buy the boat and entire marina. Others have to save all year for the one-day fishing experience. But one thing is universal — they love their special captain and would do anything to help sportfishing gain the respect it deserves,” she reflects.

The captain surveys were quite complex, taking more than an hour to complete. “Some captains filled them out on the spot. Others asked me to read the questions and worked as they dictated responses,” Milak recalls. “I gained even more respect than before for their work ethic and for running successful businesses. And, I also learned that they are very complicated creatures who love the sea and fishing.”

Milak continues to help distribute the FRG survey results to elected officials, chambers of commerce and tourism boards. Her take home message is simple: “The for-hire fishing industry brings a lot of money into the state — much of it from out of state. It’s a sector that needs to be given its due.”


Foster’s Quay in the heart of Hatteras Village is something of an historic landmark. It’s there in 1937 that Ernal Foster launched the Albatross, and with it, the first for-hire recreational fishing venture in North Carolina.

As Capt. Ernie Foster tells it, “Locals thought my father was foolish when he decided to make his living as a charter boat captain, ferrying wealthy sportsmen from the North — members of exclusive Outer Banks hunt clubs who regularly came for the abundant waterfowl hunting season. Nevertheless, he decided to commit to charter fishing as his primary source of livelihood.”

In the first season, Albatross had four charters. “But writers for Sportsmen magazine made him famous among the movers and shakers up North, who were familiar with inshore hunting and fishing. Offshore Gulf Stream fishing promised to be quite a different adventure,” Foster says.

Today, Foster’s Albatross Fleet includes Albatross (1937), Albatross II (1948) and Albatross III (1952) —each with its distinctive sweeping sheer, flaring bows, and round sterns. And, each has the fleet’s trademark red-and-white outriggers.

Foster has been a charter boat captain since 1958 and took over the family business in 1977 — after 10 years dividing his time between the Albatross Fleet and teaching biology.

Now, as in his father’s day, Foster relies on the specialized skills of a lifelong waterman to attract generations of fishing enthusiasts from across the country. “I want the state to recognize the value of the charter industry for its contribution to the economy – and the culture of the state.”

History and coastal traditions also are hallmarks of the Capt. Stacy Fishing Center on the Atlantic Beach Causeway.

“I’ve been a charter captain since I was 18 years old. Spent five years in Florida and came home to Barkers Island to build my first fishing boat,” says Capt. Sonny Davis, a lifelong waterman who has owned the popular head boat operation since 1960.

“I learned all that I know about fishing from my father, who used to run charters out of Morehead City in his day. I named the business after him,” he adds. “Our clients mostly are in-state folks who have been coming to fish with us for generations. One 95-year old man, who recently died, had been coming every week for years.”

The fishing center now is a family affair. Capt. Davis’ wife, sons, daughter, and even grandchildren have a hand in the business.

“If we had to do something else to make a living, I don’t know what it would be — but it would have to be water related,” he says. “It’s just in our DNA.”

Davis, a NCWU member, says he is pleased to see the outcome of the FRG economic study. “It demonstrates just how important this industry is to the coastal and state economy. Now that we have the data to show our economic value, we hope the policy folks will listen up to those of us who are out on the water every day and are trying to make a living from it.”

A charter captain for 10 years, Jot Owens is a comparative newcomer to the for-hire business. The Wrightsville Beach native says he has been out on the water all of his life, but still is in a learning mode.

“I want to be proactive to learn more about issues, fisheries and sustainable fishery management,” Owens says. “That includes participating in species-tagging projects as a way to help get a handle on abundances.”

A new appointee to the North Carolina Sea Grant Advisory Board, Owens assisted Sea Grant Fisheries Specialist Scott Baker with RECTEXT — the use of text messaging on cell phones to report catch data. “This could contribute valuable information to state and federal fishery managers,” he says.

Owens says conversations he has with fellow boat captains reflect concerns revealed in the FRG survey. Fishery management is the top issue for those in the for-hire sector. Other concerns include affordable waterfront access for smaller boats, and whether anyone with a small boat can go into the for-hire business without proper certification.

As for the future of the for-hire recreational industry, Owens is in step with 98 percent of the boat captains surveyed who say that they are optimistic and plan to stay in the business for years to come.

That optimism can be summed up in Owens’ catch phrase: “We’re rigged and ready.”

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