Historic fishing wharf in Carteret County.

NC - County sees significant drop in commercial fishing during last 2 decades

MOREHEAD CITY — Commercial fishermen in Carteret County have generally landed between 5 million and 9 million pounds of fish and shellfish per year for the past 15 years, including 7.4 million pounds in 2020, the latest year available.

But there was a long period of time, including as recently as the early 2000s, when those numbers reached as high as 60 to 80 million pounds or more in a year.

Carteret County, and especially Beaufort, were different then … very different. In Beaufort, particularly, the aroma of processed menhaden regularly wafted on the wind. Many, probably most, didn’t like the smell. But many others called it the “smell of money.”

It all changed in 2005 when Beaufort Fisheries, the last menhaden processing plant in the county and state, shut down for good, taking with it jobs, income and millions of pounds of fish landings. The state eventually banned industrial scale menhaden harvesting in North Carolina waters.

But the state Division of Marine Fisheries has always included menhaden in its annual landings list.

In 2004, the total statewide for the fish, used mostly for agriculture and industrial purposes, such as fish oil and fishmeal, was 50.5 million pounds, worth $4.5 million. In 2005, the totals were 33 million pounds, worth $1.2 million. Almost all the pounds and dollars entered the Carteret County economy. The workers’ money rippled through businesses everywhere.

In 2006, after Jule Wheatly’s plant in Beaufort had shuddered to a stop the previous year, the statewide menhaden harvest numbers plummeted to 962,651 pounds landed, worth $147,774. Carteret County finfish and shellfish landings, as a result, dropped from 19.3 million pounds in in 2005 to 6.6 million pounds in 2006.

By 2021, menhaden landings in the state totaled only 430,623 pounds, worth a paltry $116,424.

But when you examine the Division of Marine Fisheries data, one thing pops out: while menhaden fishing disappeared, the value of commercial fishing hasn’t changed all that much in the state. In fact, it’s gone up.

In 2004, commercial fishermen statewide landed 134.1 million pounds of fish and shellfish, including menhaden, worth $79.7 million. Total statewide finfish and shellfish landings in 2021 were 42.3 million pounds, worth $89.7 million.

For summer flounder, shrimp and hard blue crabs, three species most targeted by fishermen in Carteret County over the years, things are more interesting.

In 2004, statewide shrimp landings were 4.8 million pounds, worth $9.4 million. In 2021, that ballooned to 9.1 million pounds, worth $24.73 million.

For hard blue crabs, statistics show 32.5 million pounds, worth $20.2 million in 2004, and 12 million pounds, worth $20.5 million pounds in 2020.

In 2004, the data show 4.8 million pounds of summer flounder landed, worth $7.9 million. In 2021, the figures for the heavily regulated fish were 2 million pounds and $5.8 million.

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