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.”