By Connie Leinbach
Every day, the Ocracoke Seafood Company sends about 4,500 pounds of locally caught fish off to places beyond.
Sometimes Shane Mason gets up at 3 a.m. to drive the refrigerated truck on a four-plus-hour run to drop off the previous day’s catch to Jeffrey’s in Hatteras.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday are big market days, he said while icing down fish brought in by one of several local commercial fishermen, packing them into boxes and loading them onto pallets.
From Jeffrey’s, the Ocracoke catch goes all over, especially to New York and overseas.
Locally, restaurants and individuals can partake in that bounty by purchasing fish and shellfish in the retail area of Ocracoke’s “fish house,” as it is known.
This operation is helping to keep the island’s few commercial fishermen working and there’s been a renewed interest by the fishermen and the community to revitalize the business, said Stevie Wilson, vice-president of the board of directors.
“Because of the changing regulations restricting catches on fisheries there’s less and less commercial product being caught, making it increasingly difficult for the fish house to function and to maintain the status quo,” Wilson said, noting that special interests, through legislation, are slowly eliminating access to fresh, local seafood.
Burdensome regulations is causing the number of commercial fishermen to shrink “because opportunity is shrinking and opportunities are shrinking because of regulation. We’ve got to adapt and overcome before it gets us.”
So, the board is looking to do things that provide opportunity to sustain local fishing and create jobs on the water. An advisory board of local businesspeople will be tapped for their expertise.
Every time a customer goes into the fish house for some fresh fish or shellfish for dinner, they are helping the commercial fishing industry, Wilson said.
The “back door” has always been the fish house’s goal – to provide livelihoods for commercial fishermen.
“The retail helps keep that back door open,” Wilson said.
To get seafood that can’t be locally sourced they attempt to source within the state, but scallops aren’t locally sourced.
“We don’t have scallop boats on Ocracoke, but everyone loves scallops,” he said. “The retail is going to promote the local industries first but there can be a variety of seafood.”
Hardy and Pattie Plyler retired from the business in September and were feted with a well-attended party in the fish house.
“Hardy Plyler gets a lot of credit for all of the hard work he did for many years,” Wilson said.
Susie O’Neal, who used to own Native Seafood, is the new general manager.
Native Seafood, while having sold fresh fish, also had value-added items such as fish and crab cakes, casseroles and pies.
O’Neal hopes to add some of those items back into the Ocracoke fish house offerings, noting that the Ocracoke United Methodist rec-hall kitchen will be upgraded to an inspected kitchen in which she and others can make prepared foods for sale.
“The value-added items are not just pre-made but house-made which means local ingredients, local recipes,” O’Neal said. “That’s a huge difference to me. You can get pre-made crabcakes at Food Lion but not Ocracoke Seafood Company crabcakes or drum fishcakes.”
Wilson said the new fish house is an opportunity for not just the fishermen but for the community.
“Because we can make this anything we want it to be,” he said.