How Do I Chum You Up?: Dewey Hemilright, Long Line Fisherman of Wanchese

Reprinted from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake, Photo by Bax Miller

                   Sitting in the wheelhouse of the 42-foot FV Tarbaby in Wanchese, NC, we found Captain Dewey Hemilright, pelagic longliner, member of one the most highly restricted fisheries in the U.S. if not the world. As his girlfriend’s dog Annie angled for back-scratches, Captain Dewey pointed to a large console of equipment that makes up his mandatory Video Monitoring System, recording his every move when in Bluefin territory. He flipped through a notebook containing swordfish, Atlantic tuna, snapper grouper, large coastal sharks, and Spanish mackerel permits. He listed all of his U.S. Coast Guard safety requirements, and showed us his federal sea turtle de-hooking certification. 

                  “Every 3 years I’ve got to be re-certified or I don’t get my permits renewed,” he explained. “For this sea turtle class, we have to de-hook a cardboard box!” 

                  Above and beyond all the permit requirements, monitoring, and fishing regulations, it takes much more to stay afloat in the fishing industry. To Captain Dewey, it comes down to an emphasis on “we”, not “me,” and active participation in management.  

                  “Your fishery is on the agenda, like it or not. So we better be involved.” Hemilright has been involved in fisheries management since 1997. “I’ve had a few people enable me to go to meetings early on, and I don’t know whether to thank them or kick them in the ass.” He currently serves as one of three voting delegates from North Carolina on the federal Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and is on six Council advisory committees. He’s also a liaison to the South Atlantic Council, as North Carolina is a “swing state” ecologically, and is subject to federal management of northern and southern species. 

                  You might think a longline captain accustomed to rolling seas and leaping swordfish would have little patience for meetings, but Hemilright clearly likes “mixing it up” with people who view things differently, whether a fellow council member, an NGO representative, a fisheries observer, or a student.  

                  “How do I snag your interest, chum you up like a mahi, so you’ll find out more?” he asked. Captain Dewey’s style is to see if he can get people to question their assumptions, rather than try to impose his values on others.

                  He recalled having an observer come aboard for a multi-day trip. The observer picked up a National Fisherman and commented on an article about catch shares in Alaska. The observer remarked how effective catch shares seem to be, and suggested that the east coast might benefit as well. 

                  Dewey responded, “That’s interesting. When you read that, did you see anything about the losers there? How about the communities?” The observer paused, and said, “You know man, I never really thought about that.” 

                  Hemilright finds the Mid-Atlantic Council process to be fair. “I might not like the votes, but you’re able to vet something and ask questions throughout.” He also appreciates the opportunity for stakeholder input. “Before every vote we allow public comment, and we have webinars where you can follow a meeting, and see who is on the webinar.” He jokes that if he’d read as much in school as he reads today, he wouldn’t have ended up a commercial fisherman. 

                  Captain Dewey’s efforts to be proactive in management is not just about the pelagic longline fishery. He sees the need to fight for the whole fishing community and supporting infrastructure. “It’s more than fishing. What about the socioeconomics of the community? The welder, the fish house, the grocer? We need it all.” 

                  His “we” includes small scale fishermen as well as large. 

                  “The guy in the sound that catches a bucket of fish is just as important as that guy scalloping,” he stated. “I see people going by in small skiffs and I wonder what they’re catching. They’re just as important as the big trawl boats.” He added, “They may not be able to do something else, and they need it for their family.”

                  Hemilright’s concept of “we” includes members of an industry who are “all in” to support each other in a myriad of ways. 

                  “People in this industry, you can ask them to help you out, and they’ll do it,” Captain Dewey remarked. “Don’t want money for it – it’s not for monetary trading value. It’s for: you’re in it.” He gave several examples, including a story about Steve Parrish of S&S Trawl Shop in Supply who recently passed away. 

                  “Six months ago I asked Steve Parrish to make me a little shrimp net to put in the children’s museum in Kitty Hawk. I wanted bycatch devices and everything.” Captain Dewey tried to pay him 200 hundred dollars for his trouble. “He wouldn’t let me give him nothing.” NC Sea Grant provided educational posters, and the model is now on display. 

                   Dewey Hemilright’s “we” extends to consumers of seafood.  He hopes his efforts to educate people about commercial fishing adds a little “common sense” to management, which in turn helps the industry stay viable in order to feed people. 

                  “As a commercial fisherman, I’m giving people access to fish who don’t have money to charter a boat or buy a boat – this resource is owned by everybody…not just a few.” 

                  In Captain Dewey’s mind, the United States should support harvesters of seafood, rather than piling on debilitating restrictions. He pointed out that only about 80 active permits for pelagic longlining are left from Maine to Texas, down from 300. Due to closures, restrictions, and the use of circle hooks, crews are meeting only a fraction of their swordfish quota, just 36% last year. 

                  “So as we’re being the “poster child” (for conservation), other countries are salivating at a chance of getting our quota. They don’t have the regulations that we do. They don’t have the cameras that we do. They don’t have mandatory use of circle hooks to reduce interactions with turtles.” Captain Dewey fears other nations will eventually gobble up the unused U.S. quota, and in turn sell the fish to U.S. markets. 

                  In addition to the many meetings Hemilright attends, he has long participated in a K-12 educational outreach program called Provider Pals, where he visits classrooms to share with students the life of a commercial fisherman. A favorite story that he tells is about an unexpected stowaway he discovered far offshore one day. 

                  “I found a cat aboard my boat. A little wild ass cat.  It was a slick calm October day. I called the guys on the radio, said, you won’t believe it, I got a friggin’ cat on board! While I’m talking, I watch this cat hop on the washboard – we’re going 8 knots - and he jumps overboard!” Captain Dewey emphasized that he was no cat lover.  “But I ain’t going to let no cat drown.” One can almost see the students at the edge of their seats as he describes slowing his boat, backing up, and attempting to dip net the cat. 

                  “I tell the kids, about the time I reach him, a shark got him! They all go, NO, AHHH, NO! and I tell them, naw, I’m just messing! I put him aboard the boat and he stayed with me for 3 days.” The cat hissed at Captain Dewey the whole trip. “I gave him a little butterfish and milk.” 

                  How does Dewey Hemilright find time to fish between fisheries management meetings and his educational efforts? “You juggle the best you can,” he reflected. He figures that nobody would be able to fish if fishermen didn’t attend meetings to set the record straight and fight to maintain access to the resource. “It’s the sacrifice I’ve chosen.”

Dewey Hemilright_BaxterMiller-1.jpg