As with any ecological food web, survival for fishermen and seafood purveyors along Cape Fear’s coast hinges on the survival of the very wildlife they hunt for a living. As such, those in the industry recognize the pivotal need for a sustainable seafood infrastructure.
Sustainability as it applies to seafood refers to efforts undertaken in promoting generational vitality within aquatic species commonly harvested for consumption, along with the waters where those creatures live.
So, sustainable seafood is seafood that is either caught or farmed in ways that consider the lasting impact of harvesting those species, the ocean’s well-being and the fishing communities’ livelihoods.
Movements promoting sustainable seafood began taking serious shape during the 1990s and now dramatically influence the way people get their seafood. Not all entrees are created equal—according to one local chef, it’s all about where you get it.
Chef Joe Paxton runs the kitchen at Jinks Creek Waterfront Grill in Ocean Isle Beach. He’s worked in food preparation for over two decades and transplanted to the Cape Fear Region just a couple years ago.
Following the move, Paxton vigorously explored ways to exhibit local seafood’s variety and vastness. In his mind, doing so would require prioritizing fresh, local and sustainable food.
Menu items at Jinks range from a classic shrimp and grits to a less conventional spin on oyster rockefeller. Every piece of seafood, be it muscle, mollusk or fish, comes from a single source: Island Seafood, located on the mainland just over Odell Williamson Memorial Bridge. Paxton trusts the small family-owned business because they share his commitment for locally-grown sustainable seafood.
Richard Craft owns and operates Island Seafood with his daughter and son-in-law, Macie and Chris Hipps. He turned a recreational hobby into a full-time enterprise and brought his passion for fish along for the ride. “Sustaining our local fish habitats is something my dad and all of us here care very much about,” said Hipps.
She explains how size restrictions are implemented to ensure the correct species are caught. For example, only red drum between 17 and 28 inches in length can be legally caught and kept. Ideally, prohibiting harvest outside this range maximizes populations that are reproductively viable.
When aquatic wildlife extraction rates exceed reproductive viability, it’s called overfishing. According to one count in National Geographic, fishermen worldwide remove more than 77 billion kilograms (87.5 billion tons) from the oceans annually.
The same National Geographic article explains how demand for seafood and advances in technology have led to fishing practices that are depleting fish and shellfish populations around the world. Many fishing methods have a negative associated symptom; bycatch, or the capture of unintended species. Those long lines skimming the water for grouper can alternatively and unintentionally catch sea turtles, avian wildlife or even just undesired fish.
While some advances may have led to overfishing, there are those inventions which have significantly aided sustainable fishermen.
Captain Robert ‘Corbett’ Holden owns a shrimp boat named for his grandfather. A third-generation shrimper, Holden’s traveled far for a catch but opines the best shrimp are right here in North Carolina. He’s also quick to acknowledge just how much those shrimp have done for his family. They operate Holdens Seafood in Shallotte Point. “Keeping them around is what’s keeping us around,” he said.
Holden elaborates on the devices his boat employs to prevent the catch of unwanted species. For starters, each net is equipped with two “turtle shooters,” spots in the nets through which shrimp will pass but not larger animals like sharks and turtles. The nets are also equipped with “fish eyes” that look different than turtle shooters but serve a similar purpose whittling down the catch by filtering out fish.
Holden segues into regulatory agencies’ methods for controlling size, age and seasons during which fishermen can hunt. He said when his grandfather started in the business, they barely had any restrictions in the books. For the newest generation, it’s not a problem though. Holden said he’s happy to comply with anything to keep shrimp populations thriving.
For Cape Fear fishermen and seafood purveyors, steps taken to ensure sustainability do not only afford their catch’s longevity, but also protect?? their own. Holden, Paxton and Hipps discovered this truth through their work, and they propel that passion by putting their money where their mouth is.
As Paxton warns, fresh, local, sustainable food comes at a price. The low cost associated with with poor quality food production is directly responsible for the reduced health value of the foods people eat.
“It might cost a little extra sometimes,” Paxton said, “but the end result is always worth it.”
North Carolina’s shores are home to a spectacular seafood selection. Look for these local species on restaurant menus. Their indigenousness to this area increases the likelihood they’re harvested sustainably.
Blue Crab: Caught in rivers and sounds using wire pots and trawl nets. “Peeler” crabs are held in tanks until they shed their shells.
Clams: Harvested from sounds, or farm-raised by shellfish growers.
Grouper: Caught in the ocean using hook, line and gear.
Oysters: Farm-raised and available year-round.
Striped Bass: Caught with gill nets, seines and trawls in the ocean and sounds.