Editor’s note: This article is part 2 of 5 of the series Changing Tides, which was produced in part through the support of the Pulitzer Center.
The alarm goes off at 3 a.m., and Cole Gibbs, the 21-year-old first mate of the commercial fishing vessel the Salvation, crawls out of bed and pulls a “Make America Fish Again” cap over his shaggy strawberry-blond mop. He hops in his car and drives more than an hour from his home in Elizabeth City to Wanchese, a close-knit fishing community on Roanoke Island.
Despite the early mornings and long hours, Gibbs loves the work. After several stints on large commercial fishing boats, he prefers to spend his time aboard the Salvation, a 32-foot daytrip boat fishing the Atlantic off the Outer Banks.
Gibbs saves the money he earned, hoping to one day buy his own boat, making him a rarity in a business where few young men or women want to captain their own commercial fishing vessels.
“Very few young guys (are) getting into this because they don’t see a future in it,” said the Salvation’s captain and owner, Charlie Locke, who lives in Wanchese, near Manteo.
The commercial industry for wild-caught seafood off the North Carolina coast faces extreme pressure, as Locke sees it.
Commercial fishermen in North Carolina and elsewhere perceive a high degree of regulatory risk, unnerving changes in fish stocks and other environmental forces, and risks associated with their supply chain, such as the price they’ll get for their catch and whether they’ll find a buyer.
Shifting environmental conditions are a concern, but they’re affecting an industry that’s already stressed. At best, it’s a volatile industry, impacted by the persistent forces of weather, the market, international competition and waterfront development.
Scientists are also alarmed by the volatile impact of a changing climate on fisheries, a trend that Locke has observed over the last decade. It complements the deep uncertainty that already envelops the commercial fishing industry in North Carolina.
“No doubt something is going on,” Locke said. “The water is warming. You don’t need to understand rocket science to figure that out.”
A changing climate may not only impact Locke’s living but also what North Carolina consumers, who love to eat wild-caught fish, find on their menus, at the farmers markets and on grocery shelves. Beyond the people in the boats, small communities along the coast depend on a thriving industry to support fishermen and the working waterfront.
Declines in water quality, resulting from upstream sources and aggravated by a warming climate in the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, threaten to disrupt key fishing grounds for blue crabs and other valuable species.
Dare County, largely driven by Wanchese, has the highest seafood volume and value of any North Carolina county: nearly 14 million pounds of seafood valued at $20 million in 2019, according to the state’s Marine Fisheries Division.
The economy of Wanchese, which is just 12 miles from Nags Head, operates mostly outside the massive Outer Banks tourist economy.
While the towns and communities of the Outer Banks prosper, the residents of the small community rely on the uncertain ebb and flow of commercial fishing and the jobs it supports at fish houses and industries connected to fishing and its supply chain.
Culturally speaking, commercial fishing also defines a way of life.
On a recent overcast morning in July, Locke is clad in a yellow shirt, rubber boots and brown shorts imprinted with tiny sharks.
Typically, he motors from the harbor six days a week before sunrise. His plan today includes dropping his lines at several submerged shipwrecks near Cape Hatteras, where schools of amberjack tend to congregate.
The spot marks the confluence of tropical water from the Gulf Stream with a countercurrent of chilly sea, transported on the Labrador Current from the North Atlantic.
Scientists have discovered that climate change is altering the speed of the Gulf Stream. The weakened flow may lead to a change in the distribution of certain species.
Recent scientific research showed that summer flounder, or fluke, are leaving Carolina waters and heading north — a shift affecting the large trawl boats from Beaufort.
Over time, the average catch location of the light brown flatfish with whitish spots moved north. Now, most catches are made off the New Jersey coast, forcing commercial fishermen on longer voyages to capture their quota.
Summer flounder also depend on the estuarine waters west and northwest of Cape Hatteras, plus the tidal creeks of the Core Sound. The marsh and submerged vegetation of estuarine waters are important nursery grounds for juvenile summer flounder — a habitat now threatened by climate change.
The changes aren’t all bad news for 47-year-old Locke, who has made his living on a boat since he was 18. Spanish mackerel populations have shifted north into Carolina waters, providing a potential windfall for Locke and his crew.
After several stops that yield nothing, they find success at Diamond Shoals, 9 miles east of Cape Hatteras beneath a behemoth, rusting structure that once served as a rescue station.
Despite the strong current of the Gulf Stream that draws the vessel from the school of fish, Locke and his first mate, Gibbs, reel in several dozen amberjacks on hooks and lines from the ocean that, in the Gulf Stream, shows a remarkable purple hue.
A mechanical reel hauls in the silvery fish, which must exceed 36 inches in length to keep, a regulation set by the Southern Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
At the stern, Locke and his first mate are separated by a pool of live bait — hand-sized pinfish, spot and other fish Locke captured yesterday. As the catch reaches the surface, he jabs a circle hook into the fish and hauls it over the gunwale, onto the deck. Locke grabs its gills, removes the hook and deposits the jack in an icy container.
By noon, the fishermen meet their 1,200-pound legal limit under federal rules, since Locke is fishing beyond 3 nautical miles from the coast, putting him in federal waters. Locke estimates that he’ll fetch $2.50 per pound, which exceeds the expense of his fuel and labor. It’s a good day.
In fact, the last two years of fishing were his best ever.
Though Locke acknowledges the existence of climate change and its impact on the water he fishes, to him, it’s not an existential threat.
“Climate change isn’t as big an issue for me as … regulation,” he said, referring to state and federal regulators that manage fishing quotas, rules and regulations.
“What we’re finding as fishermen is that (regulators) take, but they hardly ever give back. That’s my fear. I’ll fight tooth and nail not to lose something because I know how hard it is to get it back.”
Nevertheless, he sees an ally in the science community and is a willing participant on federal and state fishing commissions.
“I’d rather have my voice be heard,” he said.
“Scientists are looking at computers and graphs. What we are seeing on the water doesn’t always jibe with what the computer model spits out. If you can take what they know and what I know and come together, you can usually get some stuff figured out.”
Indeed, some good news exists for commercial fishing. Fisheries stocks are, generally speaking, healthy. Overfishing is not a huge issue, said fishery management specialist Brandon Muffley of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. However, “things are changing out on the water,” he said. “Some species are moving into new territories and expanding their range.”
The MAC, an independent government agency that manages fisheries, produces an annual “state of the ecosystem report” that gives a risk assessment so officials can manage marine resources within its jurisdiction from North Carolina to New York.
North Carolina is a member of both the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic councils.
The report this year included a growing body of research that social scientists and economists conducted to examine the vulnerability of coastal communities that rely on fishing, Muffley said.
“There are all of those pressures going on on our coastal waterfront,” he said.
“If fisheries are vulnerable, then so are the communities. We’re trying to generate the science to understand how our communities and fishermen are preparing for those changes and how well they are set up to adapt to…
Read More:Climate change affects commercial fishing in NC, seafood sales