Telling the Story of the Fisheries Reform Act

“I think the most important aspect was the mechanism of developing a fisheries management plan for each of the major species.  Now, that’s not as easy as it sounds, of course, and no species stands on its own,” Dr. B. J. Copeland, retired North Carolina State University professor of Zoology and Marine Sciences, told oral historian Mary Williford last June.

Copeland was talking about the 1997 North Carolina Fisheries Reform Act, the most significant fisheries legislation in state history, and the three years of research, meetings, outreach, and negotiation that preceded passage of the act.  In 1994, the General Assembly had approved a moratorium on the sale of new commercial fishing licenses and established a 19-member committee to oversee study of the state's coastal fisheries management process and recommend changes to improve the process. 

Copeland was the executive director of North Carolina Sea Grant during that period and served on the study committee.  The committee reviewed fishing licenses, fishing gears, habitat protection, regulatory agency organization, and law enforcement, and developed recommendations to improve the coastal fisheries management process.  Those recommendations formed the basis for the Reform Act. 

Altogether, Williford and other oral historians interviewed thirteen people for the 1997 NC Fisheries Reform Act: An Oral History Perspective project.  Interviewees were fishermen, scientists, resource managers, elected officials, and environmental advocates instrumental in developing and implementing the legislation. 

Read more at the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership’s Sound Reflections.


Photograph by Jimmy Johnson, APNEP

Photograph by Jimmy Johnson, APNEP

The Power of Story: The Linking Generations Project

Outer Banks storytelling traditions and digital technology have joined together in Coastal Voices: Linking Generations, a collaborative project that has transformed access to interviews with Hatteras and Ocracoke residents.

Linking Generations is an online collection of 49 oral history interviews conducted between 1978 and 2004 for the Southern Oral History and the National Park Service Cape Hatteras National Seashore Ethnohistory Project. The exhibit includes audio recordings and written transcriptions.

Coastal Voices, a regional oral history program of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, provided digitization of the interview recordings on loan from the Outer Banks History Center and developed the online exhibit. The Outer Banks Community Foundation funded the project.

The transcriptions are popular with researchers interested in specific places, people or events described in the interviews, but the voice inflections and pauses heard in the recordings convey emotion and meaning. Listeners also hear local dialects that have largely disappeared.

Linking Generations is a rich source of first-hand accounts of events and experiences that aren’t recorded in official documents. Narrators tell their stories in their own words, generously sharing deeply personal accounts that build a powerful picture of community life, as evident in the following edited interview excerpts.

Margaret Willis, Frisco:

“My dad sent us upstairs with my mom. And then the sound tide started coming. And it got so bad that the waves were breaking on the back of our house and spattering in the upstairs window. It washed everything out of the house. And Ronald Stowe’s party boat went through our yard. Looking out the window, you couldn’t see anything but water. I was so scared, I thought we had washed out into the sound. Our house washed off its blocks and the Red Cross came and put it back for us.”

David “Lance” Midgett, Waves:

“In the old days, the doctor would come down from Manteo. He’d fly down. There was an old landing strip and cow pen between here and Salvo. The cow pen had fifteen cows. It was fenced off on three sides and then the water. The piper cub landed in that. The pilot stayed to keep the cows from licking it to death while the doctor made calls.”

Gibb Gray, Avon:

“I saw one big explosion in the middle of the night. The house shook bad and my dad said a ship had been hit. I could see the red glow. We learned later it was the City of Atlanta. Another time the school got lashed with another violent explosion and looking down towards the lighthouse, we saw the smoke, the black smoke boiling up. That was the Dixie Arrow. It was an exciting time that happened all of a sudden, with the war right at our doorstep. The Army cavalry on horses was here for patrol duty between the stations. That was the last time the cavalry horses were used. They’d come on train from Little Washington and they’d put the horses on a barge when they got to the Pamlico.”

Douglas “Chubby” Dorris, Frisco:

“One thing that sticks out in my mind was Monday, regardless of the weather, was always wash day and bean day. Grandmamma didn’t have the scrub board no more, she had the wringer washing machine. That wasn’t only at our house, that was the whole neighborhood. Monday was washday, it was like a tradition. You didn’t do nothing on Sunday. If you wanted a blouse or a shirt ironed, you better have it done Saturday. Granddaddy hardly ever raised his voice, but he’d better not catch you plugging the iron in on a Sunday and he wasn’t a real religious, church-going man. Now you couldn’t plug the iron in, but he always had a poker game every Sunday afternoon at his fish camp where he kept his nets stored.”

Lucy Stowe, Hatteras:

“Instead of getting to Atlanta, Georgia, they put me right on the weather station here at Hatteras. Gave me about a week’s training. This is a thermometer and that’s a barometer and this is a barograph. The next year we put in pilot balloons that we tracked with a theodolite, getting wind direction and velocity aloft. Then maybe the next year they put in the radiosonde. Then after World War II when radar became available, that really changed the ways of reporting weather.”

Elizabeth O’Neal Howard, Ocracoke:

“My grandfather was an old sea captain. He was in Charleston, South Carolina, in the very beginning of the Civil War and he decided that he was going to make a run for it. The port captain told him that he didn’t have a chance, that he’d never make it. But he got on the boat and snuck out of Charleston during the heaviest of the bombardment. Came to this inlet and went on up to the Roanoke River and sunk the boat. Only the top of the mast was sticking out, and he took the sails ashore and buried them. He said no damn Yankee was going to get that boat. Then he came home and the boat rested there until the Civil War was over. Then he took barrels and pontooned it. I guess that’s the right word, but that’s how he got it out.”

From Coast, by Susan West, contributing writer


David "Lance" Midgett, photo by Barbara Garrity-Blake

David "Lance" Midgett, photo by Barbara Garrity-Blake

Coastal Voices Features NC Fisheries Reform Act Collection

Recordings, transcripts and audio excerpts of thirteen oral history interviews conducted with individuals instrumental in crafting and implementing the 1997 NC Fisheries Reform Act are now available in a Coastal Voices exhibit. 

Click here to go to the exhibit.

Coastal Voices is an oral history project about the maritime heritage of the Outer Banks and Down East region of North Carolina.


Oral historians Barbara Garrity-Blake and Mary Williford interviewed Governor Beverly Perdue who was NC Senate Appropriations Committee co-chair when the Fisheries Reform Act was making its way through the NC General Assembly.

1997 NC Fisheries Reform Act Collection Available

The thirteen interviews conducted for the 1997 NC Fisheries Reform Act: An Oral History Perspective are now available on NOAA's Voices from the Fisheries website. 

Click here to access the collection.

The collection will be featured in a multimedia exhibit later this year.

The Voices from the Fisheries Database is a central repository for consolidating, archiving, and disseminating oral history interviews related to commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing in the United States and its territories. Oral history interviews are a powerful way to document the human experience with our marine, coastal, and Great Lakes environments and our living marine resources. Each story archived here provides a unique example of this connection collected from fishermen, their spouses, processing workers, shoreside business workers and operators, recreational and subsistence fishermen, scientists, marine resources managers, and others --all among NOAA's fishery stakeholders.


Dr. B.J. Copeland was interviewed by Mary Williford for the project.  (Photo by Mary Williford.)

The 1997 NC Fisheries Reform Act: An Oral History Perspective

The 1997 NC Fisheries Reform Act project consists of thirteen oral history interviews conducted with fishermen, scientists, advocates, and resource managers instrumental in crafting and implementing the Reform Act, the most significant fisheries legislation in North Carolina history.  The interviews will be available online and form the basis for a series of podcasts currently under production.  Garrity-Blake and West conducted interviews and West serves as project manager, working with a team of collaborators fluent in coastal ecosystems, archival science, and audio podcasting.  The project is funded by the North Carolina Sea Grant Community Collaborative Research Grant Program.

photo by natalie abassi.jpg