One of the Young Guns: Crabber Stephen Spruill of Columbia, NC

Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake 

While working on a North Carolina Sea Grant-funded project that focuses on the next generation of commercial fishermen, I met 29-year old crabber Stephen Spruill of Columbia. Stephen is called a “young gun” by Willy Phillips of Full Circle Crab Company. “The young guns are the go-getters of the fishery,” Phillips explained. “And Stephen has always had that spark, he’s hungry and determined – he’s eat up with fishing.” 

“Mr. Willy’s known me my whole life,” said Stephen. “He wrote the letter that I took to DMF in Morehead to get my commercial fishing license. You had to have letters from dealers. I was thirteen – that’s when I was pulling pots from a canoe!” 

The apprenticeship system, where a young fisherman learns the ropes or gets guidance from a seasoned mentor, is how the fishing industry has worked for generations. We often hear from watermen that their skills were passed down from their father and grandfather. Stephen’s case is a bit unusual because his father was a farmer, and Stephen grew up on a farm on Bulls Bay. 

 His heart was in fishing, however, and by the time he was sixteen, he “never looked back.”

 “I knew the Albemarle Sound pretty good, but to crab full time I needed to learn some other things, other water bodies,” Stephen reflected. “When everybody went back to school in the fall, I wanted to go to Manns Harbor to crab. I ended up working as a mate on a couple of boats down there until I was comfortable enough to crab with my own rig down there.” 

Today Stephen fishes at least 700 pots with a boat named after his wife, the FV Miss Bridget.

Stephen is one of dozens of fishermen we’ve been interviewing to better understand the challenges young people face, navigating increasingly restrictive fisheries regulations and fast-changing economic headwinds. 

Some of our key questions are: how can fishermen more meaningfully engage in fisheries policymaking and research? What can be done to strengthen communication and a peer-to-peer network within the industry? What needs to change to instill economic and political stability so that fishermen can invest in their business with confidence?  

Like many of the younger fishermen we’ve been talking to, Stephen is worried about the direction North Carolina fisheries management has been going in recent years, with less emphasis on stakeholder input and data-driven decision making. 

 “All it takes is one proclamation – look how the flounder fishery has been taken away from us in the summer.” He also cited herring and rockfish (striped bass) that are no longer viable options for fishermen. “Everybody’s a crabber now because there’s nothing else to do in this region.” 

 Stephen recommends that managers restore the flexibility that fishermen once had in having several fisheries from which to choose. 

“Open up other fisheries and give people options to do something different. Give them something else to harvest, it’ll take a little pressure off of crabbing.”

This “young gun” puts in long hours on the water out of passion. But he also goes the extra mile out of economic necessity. He and his wife have three mouths to feed: their sons, ages twelve, six, and four. 

“My oldest boy loves fishing and can actually help me. The middle one is learning – he’s taking it all in!” Although Stephen is not confident that commercial fishing will be a profitable option by the time his boys get older, he hopes the opportunity will be there. 

“I would like to think that they could fish. I know I enjoy doing what I do.” 

The economics of crabbing are not trending positively, however. The price of menhaden, the primary bait used for the crab fishery, has soared in the wake of quota restrictions imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Developing a bait fishery in North Carolina might help, but the state would have to reconsider its 2012 ban on purse seine fishing, the most efficient method of catching menhaden. 

“A flat of bait is now $23.50,” Stephen exclaimed. “On a normal day I need 14 flats to bait 700 pots. And the price of pots has increased. Fuel has gone up and I burn 50 gallons a week.” Stephen also has two crewmen to pay. 

“Everything has gone up but the price of crabs!” 

Stephen Spruill, like many others in the seafood business, would like to see data-based management that involved the input of fishermen. 

“I’d work with scientists,” he added, “if I thought it’d better our standing.”  

Listening to young fishermen and their mentors about ways to better their standing is what the “Next Generation” project is all about. 

The Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network and Maine’s Commercial Fishermen’s Action Roundtable (C-FAR) provide good models for North Carolina to consider. The Young Fishermen’s Development Act was introduced in Congress this spring; it would provide training and support similar to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. 

Young people are the future. Why shouldn’t the next generation of fishermen have a chance to follow their passion?

“It’s not work,” Stephen said, “if you love what you do.”

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Your Mouth is Going to Get You Killed: Fisherman and Survivor Lauren Rimmer of Beaufort NC

Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake

 “Lauren, your mouth is going to get you killed. That’s what my mother tells me!” Indeed, 35-year old single mother Lauren Rimmer does not hold back when defending her livelihood as a commercial fisherman. Hailing from Beaufort, NC, Lauren recently went to Raleigh with fellow fishermen to fight for the industry’s survival. 

“They asked, you do this for a living? I said, yes, that’s why I’m here!” She believes that fishermen have a responsibility to educate others about their work and counteract negative stereotypes.   

“I told a Senator, you’re actually uneducated about what I do. And I’m uneducated about what you do. So it’s the same concept, sir.” 

 Lauren is the granddaughter of the late Carl Cannon, who ran Cannon Seafood in Beaufort for many years. She grew up fishing with him and with her father, Danny Rimmer. Although she got her degree in therapeutic recreation, and has worked other jobs, her love for the solitude and independence of commercial fishing won out…much to the consternation of her parents. 

“My father didn’t give me advice because he didn’t want me to fish,” she explained. “But I was bound and determined to figure it out, which moon will be the best, which tide, where can I go?” She playfully added that she’s gained her father’s respect since she “beat him at flounder gigging last year!” As for her mother, “She says, if you’re happy I’m happy. Okay, I’m happy!” 

Lauren has seen lots of changes in Beaufort and surrounding areas, and worries about the impact of development and loss of habitat on wildlife. “Seven hundred houses are getting built and they’re trying to figure out where the bears are coming from that are walking through Beaufort?” She shook her head at the thought of people building their houses along the marshes. 

“How many fish did you kill? What about when you Clorox your porch?” 

A small-scale fisherman, Lauren targets shrimp, crabs, flounder, and speckled trout. She has a skiff that she trailers from area to area that she calls “the money maker.” Her nine-year daughter Olivia often accompanies her, falling asleep in a bean bag chair during late hours of flounder gigging. 

“She’s tough,” Lauren emphasized. “I want her to be independent. She loves the water, loves to flounder, has her own little gig. She’s not scared of a thing. Tough little cookie.”

Although Lauren recently got a job working on a dredge boat, she still earns income commercial fishing when she can, during her days off. “I bought my house on commercial fishing,” Lauren emphasized. “I put in my effort, and my money goes where it’s supposed to go. I’m able to take my daughter and do things. There’s plenty to be made in commercial fishing if you know how to manage your money.”

Last spring, Lauren Rimmer did not wet a crab pot. She was in Fiji for almost 50 days as a contestant on the top-rated reality show Survivor. Her sister, “who loves to get me in trouble,” talked Lauren into going to a casting call in Greenville. Several interviews later, along with a background check, a visit to a doctor, a psychiatrist, an investigation by a private detective, and a trip to California for additional screening, Lauren got word that she made the cut. 

“They don’t tell you you’re going until two weeks prior to leaving. You have to Fed Ex all your clothes so they can approve them. Then you get on the plan and you’re gone.” 

Lauren described Survivor as a game of strategy and hardship, designed to “break you down mentally.” Several people are stranded in the wilderness, divided into teams, and must “outwit, outplay, and outlast,” each other for the one-million-dollar grand prize.   

“We had nothing – I slept on the beach in a sand hole, just to get rid of the bugs and mice. I lost nineteen pounds.” 

Lauren’s coastal upbringing seems to have benefitted her on the Fiji island.  

“I ran around that jungle like Mogley. Barefooted. Everybody had shoes on, and they were cut and bleeding every day. Growing up in the middle of a marsh really did help, because I walk looking at the ground, and they walk looking up! One guy stepped on a stake and it shoved through the bottom of his heel. And they sunburned – I never got sunburned.”  

Did her skills as a commercial fisherman help her endure the physical, emotional, and mental stress of the Survivor game?  

“I think having common sense helped. Our teams were the heroes versus the healers versus the hustlers. The heroes were military, gymnasts, swimmer gold medalists. Healers were doctors, nurses, stuff like that. Hustlers were myself, a bell hop, a personal assistant. One of the producers told me, ‘You probably were the only true hustler.’ I think having to grow up hustling, trying to figure things out, being on my own, being a commercial fisherman – simple things like knot tying, oaring a boat - helped me to survive.” 

Although she wasn’t the winner on the game Survivor, Lauren puts her skills to work in everyday life as a single mom, dredge boat crew, and commercial fisherman.  

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He Threw His Gun Overboard: Margaret Willis of Frisco, NC

Edited excerpt of oral history recorded by Susan West for Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s “Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages Adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore,” 2005, IAI Inc. with B. Garrity-Blake, lead ethnographer/writer. Map drawn by B. Garrity-Blake. Margaret Willis excerpt published as part of “Sound Stories,” Our State Magazine, Sept 2011.

The old people of Hatteras Island said you could smell a storm. My granddad would look at the sky and say ‘We’re going to get something bad, something’s coming, you can smell it in the air.”  

The ’44 storm struck around the first of September.  We were sitting on the porch and the sun was shining real pretty and the sea tide was coming up fast. We were kicking our feet in the tide from the porch.  All of a sudden it started blowing the rain in. I guess the wind shifted. My dad sent us in the house upstairs with my mom. That tide, the sound tide, started coming. It got so bad that the waves were breaking on the back of our house and spattering in the upstairs window. We had them boarded up and it was coming through the cracks.

The tide came on in. My dad wanted to open the windows and doors and mama wouldn’t let him. She was scared. She didn’t want him to and that caused our house to float off the blocks.  It busted out the windows. The water was to my dad’s neck downstairs in the hallway, up to the fifth step of our stairs. He had a big tool chest made out of wood. They had two boxes sitting on top of that, and a big ham that they had cooked so we would have it.  As heavy as that chest was, the water turned it over. It washed the furniture out. The doors come open and the windows and the tide washed everything out the house.  

 We was upstairs, me and my brothers. My brother J.S. was toddling along - I can still see them fat little legs – singing, “Pistol packing mama, lay that pistol down.”  Ronald Stowe’s party boat went through our yard. Big old boats had come loose. Looking out the window you couldn’t see anything but water. I thought we had washed in the sound. If one of them boats would have hit the house, it would have killed us.  I guess the Lord was watching over us.

It seemed every September the tide would come in the house.  All you did was wash the mud out and scrub the floors. My mom used to cry. She would get linoleum down and put curtains up and here would come a hurricane and it all rolled up in a knot, mud and all.  Then they started painting the floors with light oak or dark oak floor paint.  All you had to do was wipe out the mud. 

My brother Larry was born just after the ’44 storm. He had spina bifida.  The night he was born he was kicking just like any other little baby.  He had a little place on his back about the size of a marble.  But within a month’s time he didn’t kick no more and he was paralyzed from the waist down. 

We carried him to Duke’s Hospital. We had to go across Pamlico Sound to Englehard on the Hadico. It was a freight boat. From Englehard we took some kind of a bus to Raleigh.  Then we walked from there to the medical center. 

They told mama that they couldn’t do anything for him. They said he wouldn’t live more than two or three years, and that she should put him in a home.  He lived ten years, and wouldn’t have lived that long if my mom hadn’t taken such good care of him.  

He was just our life then. We spent all our time playing with him. I would sit and rock him until my arms ached, just so he could sit up. He learned everything we learned in school.  He was real happy and he was smart. His spine was pulled apart. He had part of it grow on the outside. The Methodist church here in Hatteras used to buy his alcohol and gauze pads to go on his back. They made all of his gowns and things that he wore when he was little.  He wore diapers until he died.

 My father’s family was from just outside Raleigh, North Carolina.  My dad was in the CC camp down here when he met my mom. She was 25 and he was only 18, but he told her he was 25. Two years after they got married and I was born my grandma wrote him a letter and asked him how it felt to be a father at age 20. He had scratched over it and tried to put down 27. Mama asked him, “How old are you Mr. Layne?” He said, “I was afraid you wouldn’t marry me if I told you I was younger.”  

Just before my father left they elected him Sheriff of Dare County. I don’t know what happened. I think he just woke up one day and found out he couldn’t handle it, four babies, one an invalid, and he was young. That’s what I try to tell myself anyway. I remember the morning he left.  My mama asked him if he was going to bring my brother some potatoes home for lunch. He said he hoped to. We heard that my father just threw his gun, holster and all, overboard on the way to Englehard on the Hadico. That’s how he left.  

My grandfather took us in. It had to be hard - four kids, as old as he was.  But I never heard him complain. He used to clam all day long in the sound near Ocracoke Inlet. He would tote them clams on his back up the road. 

I was married and my young’uns were little before I ever seen my father again. He came back with his wife and his family.  That was first time knowing that I had other brothers and sisters. I didn’t see them again until he died about five years ago and his oldest son kept me informed. They’ve been coming down, back and forth. They’re the sweetest brothers and sisters that anybody could have. I love them dearly. 

We’ve had a lot of hard times. But true love has outweighed it all.   

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We Found a Lifeboat with Two Bodies: Anderson Midgett of Rodanthe, NC Recalls the Manteo-Hatteras Bus Line

Excerpt from Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s “Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages Adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore,” 2005, IAI Inc. with B. Garrity-Blake, lead ethnographer/writer. A. Midgett interview recorded by Amy Glass, 1988, Southern Oral History Program. Map drawn by B. Garrity-Blake.   

T. Stockton Midgett was a Coast Guard surfman who raised his family in the 1920s and 30s in a Rodanthe house fashioned from timbers of a wrecked ship. With no paved roads or bridges, Midgett saw a need for improved transportation on and off the island. In 1938 he began the Manteo-Hatteras Bus Line that ran from Hatteras Village to Manteo.  

But he died of a heart attack two months later, leaving his sons - eighteen-year-old Harold, fourteen-year-old Anderson, and ten-year-old Stockton “Stocky” Midgett - to carry on the business with a Ford station wagon.   

Islanders were glad to have transportation other than boat, and in the early years were not bothered by the brothers’ youth or lack of driver’s licenses. They used the bus line in such numbers that the Midgetts soon switched to larger buses. They ran the Manteo-Hatteras Bus Line for the next 35 years.  

“We used to bring just about everybody that left Ocracoke to go to Norfolk.  They all traveled with us – Ocracoke, Hatteras, Buxton, Avon, Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo, all of them.  So we got to know just about everybody in the whole area,” recalled Anderson Midgett. 

Sand ruts and hard beach formed the only routes, and a wooden ferry carried vehicles from the north end of the island en route to Manteo.  “That was a private ferry run by Toby Tillet and Pam Gallop,” said Anderson. “They were both Wanchese fellows with a small ferry named the New Inlet and a larger called the Barcelona.

“We used to call our route “the 101” – hundred and one roads because there was no designated road. If the tide was out, you drove the surf.  If the tide was in, you drove the bank of the beach or a dozen inside roads.” The Midgetts drove across shallow inlets cut by storms and avoided deepwater cuts by driving out into the sound. They maneuvered the bus around shipwrecks. They routinely got stuck in the sand, requiring passengers to get out and push.   

The brothers worked endless hours keeping the vehicles maintained, as sand and saltwater was rough on the station wagons and school bus-type vehicles.  “It wasn’t unusual to break a spring a day,” said Anderson Midgett.  “Work on them half the night to get them ready for the next day.  We started a little garage and kept them painted and washed down.  We must have used, in thirty five years, over a hundred buses.”  

The Midgetts took out loans when in need of a new bus or major repair, repaying the bank promptly.  “We’d usually wear the busses out completely until they rusted right out.  Everyone said we were hard drivers.  You had to be hard drivers to drive on the beach.” 

Villagers paid around $2.50 for a one way trip from Hatteras to Manteo, and “the fare never did go over $2.75.” Their schedule began at Hatteras Inlet, where they met the boat from Ocracoke at 8:15.  They would drive north, stopping at designated stores or post offices in each village.  People “knew to sit their suitcase out, and we’d stop and pick them up.” The bus reached the ferry at Oregon Inlet about four and a half hours later, barring no major delays from storms, flooding, soft sand, or breakdowns.  

“Sometimes it took us eight hours and sometimes ten,” said Midgett, adding that sometimes they and their customers had to spend the night on the beach. 

“We’d cross the ferry with Captain Toby, go into Manteo, make connections with the Virginia Dare Transportation company bus, turn right around and come back to Hatteras. That was a daily schedule seven days a week, and we didn’t miss many days. This taught us how to work.” Round-trip burned two tanks of gas.

The Midgett brothers transported Coast Guard personnel on liberty, students traveling to and from boarding school, and islanders in search dredge, shipyard, and other jobs. “Some really didn’t have the fare. When they come back later, they’d pay us.  They’d ride with us for years and years.” 

The bus line was busy during World War II, as islanders left to enlist or find work, and more Coast Guardsmen and military personnel were brought in.  Despite rationing, the Midgetts were supplied with all the gas coupons they needed. As the Outer Banks became “Torpedo Junction” with Nazi U-boats lurking just offshore, Anderson Midgett and his brothers experienced the close proximity of the war first hand.  

“One morning as I rounded a little turn in the beach, I saw the most tires that you could ever see. The Germans had bombed the ship off our coast that was loaded with tires bound for the Pacific - military truck tires. You could not hardly drive. One day we found a lifeboat that was bullet-ridden, with two bodies in it.  Reported it to the Chicamacomico Coast Guard station when I went by. We had to keep our lights blacked out and when you were driving at night, it slowed you up. You couldn’t drive out on the surf.”

The paving of Highway 12 in the late 1950s and the completion of the Oregon Inlet bridge in 1963 made the Midgett’s route faster and easier, although there was the continued problem of over wash and “cut-outs.”  The road spelled the end of the busline, however, as residents and visitors were able to provide their own transportation. The brothers moved on to their next business venture: Midgett Realty.  

“We’ve been in real estate for right good while,” reflected Anderson Midgett.  “But I still enjoy driving the beach.”

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We're Just the Wee Guys: a Chat with a Scottish Fisherman

Reprinted from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake

In the Scottish village of Tarbert on the west coast at the mouth of the Hebrides, I met fisherman Kenny MacNab who was sipping a Guinness at a local pub, his dog Kiera at his feet. Out of 45 years of fishing, he's spent much of the past decade fighting for fishermen's rights as a member of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, one of several that make up the Scottish Fisheries Federation.

"We represent fishermen of the Firth of Clyde," MacNab explained. "Ours is the oldest association, which began in the 1930s when herring was the main fishery."

Today mackerel, cod, herring, and other pelagics known collectively as "whitefish" are quota fisheries targeted by large fleets in the 12-200 mile European Union EEZ. MacNab, fishing Frigate Bird, a 17meter-long twin-rigged trawler, harvests inshore fisheries within the 12-mile Scottish territory.

"I fish mainly lobster, scallops, crabs, and langostinos for Spanish and French markets," he said, explaining that waters have warmed and shellfish have become more abundant in recent years.

Although Scottish fishermen have much in common with U.S. fishermen, impacted by well-funded but misinformed NGOs, lacking a sufficient voice in management, and experiencing profound changes in their communities, they face a complicated political landscape very much in flux since the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, divorcing England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland from the European Union.

"I voted for Brexit, but was shocked when it passed," MacNab reflected. "I thought, now we have a chance for properly managed fisheries." EU fisheries are managed according to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which sets quotas and regulations for all member countries.

"The CFP has been a disaster for us," said Kenny MacNab. "All the power comes down from Brussels and we have no input. I now have hope for the first time in a long time that we can regain control, sit at the table with bureaucrats and scientists, and turn things around."

A recent CFP policy that has proven controversial among fishermen is known as the Landing Obligation. The Landing Obligation, half way into a 3-year phase-in, requires that all fish in key quota species be landed rather than discarded, undersized fish sold as scrap to fishmeal companies or counted and then buried in a landfill.

"Madness," MacNab declared. "This will tie boats up because it costs you. If you carry in 150 boxes of discards, that's 150 boxes of marketable product that's displaced." He added, "The Landing Obligation is probably the primary reason fishermen supported Brexit."

Although MacNab is optimistic about the future, he expresses a very cautious optimism. "I don't trust any politician, although some are good people. They will tell you anything for a vote, and fishermen have been used as political pawns."

Younger fishermen of Tarbert have been making money and doing well, which Kenny MacNab is glad to see. He'd like to see the community spirit associated with fishing make a come-back as well.

"A very social thing, fishing is," he emphasized. "We work all week, we're all in it together, everyone part of the community - it's not too late to bring that back." A great challenge is countering the negative image being spread on social media about fishing.

"They make us out to be pirates," said MacNab. But we're just the wee guys trying to keep our communities going and alive."

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