Reprinted rom Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake; photograph by B. Merkley
“Everything we have, everything we eat, our whole livelihood has come from the water,” Sandy Gaskill observed. She and Elbert grew up together on Harkers Island and have been making a life together for more than fifty years.
“We borrowed 1,500 dollars to get started,” said Elbert. “Bought an 18-foot boat, motor, gillnet, and waist boots. Soon as we started making money we paid it off.”
Elbert has built boats, made his own clam rakes, and done his own engine repair.
“I know a little bit about carpentry, can fix my nets, rigging, wiring, welding - you got to know a little bit about everything,” he points out. “When all else fails, you can grab your tub and rake and go clamming. Eat Vienna sausage, crackers, keep clamming til your back gives out, but you can pay your light bill.”
Elbert has a low-key, humble demeanor. You might not guess that his fellow fishermen count him as one of the hardest-working, innovative members of their community. For example, Elbert was the first in North Carolina to try the “fish eye” in his trawl net, a type of finfish excluder device.
“We were working back of Cedar Island - me and Buddy Gaskill, who later drowned – we studied it.” The men sewed the excluder device, which Elbert had built based on one he had seen at a fishing show, into a tail bag, while a second tail bag served as a control. They made a tow and checked their results.
“When I hauled back, the bag with the fish eye device was smaller, and right red looking. Dumped it out and it was shrimp. It worked.” He emphasized that fishermen do not want to catch small fish and other bycatch because “that’s our livelihood!”
Elbert thinks that Turtle Excluder Devices, called “turtle shooters” by fishermen, were a good innovation as well. “Turtle shooters was the best thing (managers) ever done,” he emphasized. “I shoot the whifferees (rays) right on out, and skates, grass, bycatch, jellyballs, turtles, and other stuff you don’t want to be bothered with.”
“Right now,” he added, “if they said ‘You ain’t got to use a TED’ I’d still want to use it!”
Sandy and Elbert maintain that the key to their success was working together and being prepared to switch gears and fisheries to adapt to conditions.
“We’d get set up for channel netting,” Sandy said, “And he’d go floundering while I fished the channel net. He’d go scalloping from Harkers Island to Sneads Ferry in the wintertime and I’d open scallops. Built a big boat for shrimping, but a hard freeze killed every spotted shrimp that season – had to leave the new boat to the dock and go hand clamming. During red tide we went offshore, sink netting.”
In the early years Elbert apprenticed with Claude Brown of Marshallberg, setting pots in the wintertime for black sea bass in the ocean. Today Elbert is one of the few permit holders from this region who can participate in that fishery.
“He’s been a hard worker and a good provider,” Sandy said, nodding her head. “He tends his own business and we don’t bother nobody.”
“You have to act like it’s the last dollar to be made,” Elbert added.
For all of the deck time Sandy has put in, she has worked just as hard on land sticking up for the fishing industry. “If it hadn’t been for the women,” Elbert declared, “fishing would be all be closed down.”
Although always the backbone of fishing families, women became increasingly organized and vocal in North Carolina fish politics in the 1990s. “Ladies auxiliaries” formed to support the North Carolina Fisheries Association, and women sponsored fundraisers, protests, and trips to the state capital to appeal to lawmakers.
“We’d go to Raleigh and sometimes we’d leave there laughing,” Sandy recalled. “Sometimes we’d leave a’crying. Most times we’d leave a’praying.”
In the Gaskill’s living room hangs an award to Sandy from the North Carolina Coastal Federation for her efforts in stopping a large marina from being built on Harkers Island, which would have destroyed adjacent shellfish beds. Sandy also served on the county harbor authority and successfully fought to keep dock space affordable for commercial fishermen.
She, along with Karen Amspacher, Pam Morris, and the late Janice Smith, was instrumental in making the North Carolina Seafood Festival’s Blessing of the Fleet what it is today.
“It’s been 20 years we’ve been doing this Blessing,” Sandy said. The women elevated the event to a truly sacred experience, with a procession of boats big and small blessing lost loved ones with wreaths that are tossed into the water.
Honoring ancestors is important, but so too is looking ahead to the next generation of commercial fishermen. Sandy and Elbert have hope in the future because they see young people entering the fisheries, and they hope more of them will participate in management.
“I was on the state's crustacean advisory committee for eight years,” said Sandy. “I said, no, I’m not going back on - I want the young ones to take a turn, take part, and take an interest in it.”
Sandy shared a story about a young fisherman who asked her about the North Carolina Fisheries Association, the state’s largest trade organization for the seafood industry. He was wondering if the organization cared about small fishermen.
“I said, let me tell you something. We can’t make it without them, and they can’t make it without us. We have got to work together or we’re going to lose it all.”
Sandy is known for speaking passionately at fisheries and legislative meetings. “When everything you have comes from the water, you go to a meeting and speak from the heart. You go there to tell them the truth.”
Her advice to the next generation of fishermen and fisheries warriors? “Don’t be afraid to speak up. You know what you’re talking about."
Elbert concedes that young people have new challenges to face. “More than anything, our fish are going north.” He notes that greentail shrimp are now filling the Chesapeake Bay, sea mullets are appearing off New York, and trout and croaker are frequenting northern waters.
“And sharks are coming up from the south. I’ve worked 12 o’clock shoal my whole life never bothered by a shark, but now they eat the tail bag!”
At 73, Elbert is not deterred, and he and Sandy continue to rise to the challenges on land and sea alike.
“All the income we’ve ever had has come from the water,” Sandy reflected. “Nothing else, just the water. And we’ve made it.”