This year’s Day at the Docks begins with a serious talk about fishing
By JORDAN TOMBERLIN
around 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 13, under a large party tent in the
backyard of the historic Seaside Inn, Ernie Foster stepped onto the
stage and grabbed the microphone.
Just minutes earlier, an unexpected late-summer storm had unleashed
torrential rains, forcing the 80 or so guests who had gathered for the
first event of this year’s Day at the Docks festival into the tent.
“Well,” he said with a smile, “I guess this is probably an appropriate way to begin a fisheries meeting in Hatteras.”
Appreciative chuckles rippled through the audience, and with that, the annual Day at the Docks had officially kicked-off.
If the storm seemed an appropriate way to begin Thursday’s discussion,
then the discussion itself—titled “Talk of the Villages: Fishermen,
Fish, Food, and Livelihood”—seemed like a perfect way to begin this
year’s extended event.
When Ernie and his wife Lynne, the founders and organizers of Day at
the Docks, decided to expand the event this year—from a one-day
celebration along the Hatteras waterfront to a four-day, village-wide
affair—it was with the idea that Day at the Docks could function not
only as a means to celebrate watermen and honor the island’s fishing
tradition, but also as a tool to help actively preserve that heritage.
Lynne said that she hoped that the new additions to the Day at the
Docks line-up—and “Talk of the Villages” in particular—would help
uplift the fishing community and inspire watermen to become leaders in
the fishing industry.
To that end, the Fosters—in cooperation with event sponsors North
Carolina Sea Grant, North Carolina Watermen United, Northwest Atlantic
Marine Alliance, and Saltwater Connection—assembled a panel of
fishermen (and women) and fishing industry advocates from across the
nation to share their personal experiences in the industry and discuss
the future of Hatteras Island fisheries.
Featured guests included: Dave Densmore, a poet and life-long
commercial fisherman from Alaska; Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation
shrimper and steadfast environmental activist from Texas; Robert
Fritchey, an author and commercial fisherman from Louisiana (by way of
Pennsylvania), and Niaz Dorry, an advocate for small, diverse, fishing
fleets and the coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine
The discussion, which was moderated by Susan West and Barbara
Garrity-Blake, who co-wrote the book, “Fish House Opera,” essentially
focused on the question of whether it is possible to have healthy fish
stocks as well as healthy fishing communities.
After thanking the Seaside Inn for hosting the event, crediting the
sponsors and organizers who had worked to make the whole thing
possible, and recognizing the local political officials who
attended—including County Commissioners Warren Judge, Mike Johnson, and
Allen Burrus, as well as state Sen. Stan White—Foster turned the
discussion over to West.
West briefly introduced the panelists, and opened the discussion by
asking Densmore what motivated him to continue fishing, despite having
felt incredible painful loss and having faced life-threatening
accidents on the water.
Densmore, who now lives in Oregon and, in addition to fishing, writes
poetry about commercial fishermen and their work, spoke about his
In 1971, he spent four frigid nights in a life raft, adrift on the
Bering Sea without a survival suit, after a king crab boat he was
running caught fire and burned. He and his men were rescued by a
Japanese trawler and miraculously survived, but the incident landed him
in the hospital for a month, and it took him two years to recover from
the severe frostbite that temporarily left him unable to walk.
Some years later, a boating accident claimed the lives of both his father and his son. It was his son’s 14th birthday.
His response to West’s question was simple: “It’s who I am,” he said.
“I’m a commercial fisherman. I was born this way.” He added that for
him—and indeed, for many, many others—fishing was far more than just a
job, and identifying as a fisherman implied a special connection to the
ocean and encompassed a whole range of feelings and responsibilities
that were not always visible or understandable to others.
“It’s an emotional thing as much as it is a way to make a living,” he said.
When the moderators asked him what prompted him to start writing
poetry, Densmore named that emotional connection to the water—the
intangible and invisible aspect of a fisherman’s life—as his muse.
Everywhere he looked, he said, he saw commercial fishermen being
portrayed as “robbers and...rapers of the ocean.” Frustrated by being
villainized—and seeing that characterization used to justify increasing
regulation of the fishing industry—Densmore decided do something about
“People don’t know who commercial fishermen are, don’t know the
emotional side, their connection to the ocean.” His poetry is a
window into that world.
From Densmore, the moderators moved to Diane Wilson, another
dyed-in-the-wool commercial fisherman whose efforts to defend fishermen
and fisheries led her deep into the world of social and environmental
In her quest to protect her native Gulf Coast Bay and draw attention to
the pollution that had laid siege to the waters and the watermen who
worked them, Wilson has launched legislative campaigns, political
demonstrations and protests, and hunger strikes. She has sunk boats,
climbed chemical towers, and been jailed more than 50 times for civil
In addition to being a fourth-generation fisherwoman, an activist, and
a mother of five, Wilson has written three books about her experiences
and has been profiled in a number of national media projects. She is
currently working on a fourth book, a fictional account of the end of
Texas commercial fishermen.
She spoke about what it was like to be a woman in a world dominated by
men, ultimately pointing to the fact that fishing can be an egalitarian
industry: “Even when men cannot understand you being out there at all,
they don’t care when you can fix the nets.”
And when Garrity-Blake asked Wilson why she got into activism in the
first place, and what prompted her to become so radical in her work,
Wilson’s rather poetic answer reflected a uniquely feminine, maternal
perspective that seemed to speak to the largely local audience on
“This is why it’s important growing up in a fishing town and being here
your whole life,” she said. “I can remember extremely clear, when I was
probably...5 years old, and I could go down to the bay, and I could see
the water. I saw what she looked like. It was a woman. The bay really
is a woman, and she’s got a personality like a grandmother, and she was
real, and she was there, and...she was alive.”
It was an image that stuck with her, a lesson she never forgot.
“Knowing that this woman was in distress,” she said, “was what moved
And if you’re wondering if Wilson regrets becoming an activist, the answer is no.
Though her work has gotten her in plenty of trouble and has cost her
two marriages, a house, a boat, a job, and a lot of friends, Wilson’s
answer to Garrity-Blake, when she asked Wilson if it had all been worth
it to her personally, was resounding and unequivocal.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I remember the day my [former husband] and I
finally broke it, he said, ‘You know, I don’t like who you are,’ and I
was just thinking, at that very same moment...I’ve never liked myself
so much in my life.”
Between Densmore’s struggle to show the world the true identity of
commercial fishermen and his heartbreaking portrait of their complex,
emotional connection to the water, and Wilson’s inspiring story of
seeing the soul of the bay and giving everything she had to protect it,
it’s safe to say that, if one of Lynne Foster’s goals for the evening
was to uplift and inspire the Hatteras fishing community, the event
As the applause for Wilson died down, West and Garrity-Blake began the
next round of questions, directing them to the remaining two panelists,
Robert Fritchey and Niaz Dorry.
Unlike Densmore and Wilson, Fritchey and Dorry were not born into
commercial fishing families or even (in Fritchey’s case) into fishing
communities, but both are accomplished and outspoken advocates for
commercial fishermen and the fishing industry.
The tone of the discussion shifted a little when it got to them. The
questions became less about who commercial fishermen are and what they
are fighting for, and, instead, focused more on what’s happening to
commercial fishing and what can be done to save it.
Fritchey spoke first, recounting how he, the son of a Pennsylvania
dermatologist, went from completing a master’s degree in tropical
medicine and medical parasitology, to working as a trammel-net
fisherman in Louisiana, landing redfish from the deck of souped-up
He talked about the controversy surrounding that fishery—a controversy
that was fueled by a growing recreational fishing industry that
demanded more access to the fishery’s resources and was exacerbated by
media coverage that demonized the commercial faction.
Louisiana’s 1995 legislative net-ban, a watershed decision in the
fishing world, put Fritchey out of business and became the subject of
his influential book, “Wetland Riders.”
He effectively characterized the action as an unfair monopolization of
public resources by private organizations, and he talked about how,
through manipulation of words like “conservation” and
“environmentalism,” the public had been led to believe the myth that
commercial fishermen are, as Densmore put it earlier, “rapers of the
Fritchey’s words no doubt fell on sympathetic ears, as North Carolina’s
fishermen have seen red drum become gamefish and have been fighting net
ban legislation for years—against the very same organizations that led
the way in Texas and Louisiana, which are using the same manipulative
But Fritchey had hopeful words for the watermen in the audience.
“I’ll say this,” he said, when West brought up the similarities between
the two fisheries. “Y’all are way more organized up here, and you’re in
a whole lot better shape than Louisiana fishermen ever were.”
Fritchey’s emphasis on media misrepresentation of commercial fishing
and the unfortunate impact of the collusion of politics and
environmental science led smoothly to Niaz Dorry’s discussion of the
difference between industrial fleet fishing operations and their
small-scale counterparts—those independent operators, found in coastal
communities all over the nation, that are slowly losing access to
resources and being forced out of business.
Dorry is currently the coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic
Marine Alliance (NAMA), but she began her work protecting small-scale,
traditional, and indigenous fisheries as a campaigner for Greenpeace.
Given Hatteras Island’s recent dealings with environmentalists and
environmentalist causes, it would be understandable, forgivable even,
if the mention of Greenpeace raised more than a few red flags in an
audience full of Hatteras residents and fishermen, but Dorry’s work
actually aligns perfectly with the interest of Hatteras Island’s
fishermen, and her ideas are reflected in recent initiatives (such as Outer Banks Catch and Saltwater Connections)
that have been started here in the interest of promoting and protecting
our local fishermen.
“From the get-go,” Dorry said, explaining how she came to be one of
the most influential advocates for small-scale fishing communities in
the country, “one of the things that became really pretty clear to me,
was that there was a difference between fishing and extracting marine
For Dorry, the solution to the problem of maintaining healthy fish
stocks and healthy fishing communities is a simple one, and it’s right
in front of us: small fleets, composed of independent operators who use
diverse methods to harvest a variety of fish. That is the path to
sustainable, environmentally sound fisheries.
In the end, “we have to make sure that who ends up catching our fish are our community-based fishermen.”
Dorry, as well as the other panelists, also called on the public to take an active role in this cause.
She essentially compared the current state of the fishing industry to
that of the farming industry in the mid-20th century. Fishermen, like
farmers, are faced with the choice between scaling-up their operations
to the industrial level or losing their boats and their livelihood
altogether—get big or get out.
To combat that approach, Dorry said that it is imperative for members
of fishing communities—as well as the general public—to educate
themselves about the provenance of their seafood, to understand the
truth about commercial fishermen and the work they do, and to support
local fishermen, not just by purchasing the fruits of their labor, but
by speaking out about the issues they face.
It’s good advice, and as soon as the audience was done asking questions of the panelists, it was put to good use.
Volunteers served up scallop cakes and steamed shrimp (donated by the
Wanchese Seafood Co.), fried Spanish mackerel (donated by Avon
Seafood), and fried soft-shell crabs (donated by Nags Head-based
fisherman Chad Hemilwright).
Everyone got a little taste of what it’s like to support local fishermen.
And it tasted good.
FOR MORE INFORMAITON:
For a related story on Day at the Docks with a slide show, go to http://islandfreepress.org/2012Archives/09.17.2012-DayAtTheDocks2012DrawsLargerCrowdThanEverToHonorIslandWatermen.html