Monday, August 16, 2010

Ocracoke's Fishing Tradition

I know I wrote about this almost exactly one year ago, but I was recently reminded that, although there have always been fishermen on Ocracoke, for many years this was not primarily a fishing village. I think many writers and journalists simply assume that Ocracoke must have always been a traditional fishing village. After all, this is an island surrounded by some of the best fishing waters on the east coast. They fail to understand how difficult, time-consuming, and expensive it would have been to carry fish to mainland markets before 1938, the year the ice plant was built. Prior to that year there was no electricity on Ocracoke, hence no way to make ice for preserving fish. In addition, gasoline powered skiffs were just beginning to replace sail skiffs, slow, sometimes dangerous, and often unreliable transportation to the mainland. Ocracoke didn't have ferry service until the 1950s, and the paved road to Hatteras wasn't constructed until 1957.

A quick perusal of census records confirms the above. Ocracoke's 1850 census lists 28 pilots (men with knowledge of the local waters who guided sailing ships through the inlet and across the sound to mainland ports), 10 seafarers, three dozen laborers, merchants, mechanics, etc., and only 5 fishermen. The 1860 census lists 13 pilots (the more navigable Hatteras inlet had opened in 1846 and many pilots moved there), 18 mariners, and only one fisherman!

Of course fresh fish, clams, crabs, and other seafood have been the primary food on island tables since the 1700s. By the second half of the twentieth century commercial fishing had become a major source of income for many local residents. In spite of a number of setbacks, today Ocracoke's fishing related commerce continues to grow and thrive, thanks in large measure to the Working Watermen's Association. You can read more here.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of the 1913 wreck of the 6-masted schooner, George W. Wells. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous11:16 AM

    We noticed this year there were alot more fishing boats than last year. Does the fish house mostly service the local restaurants and sales out of the Ocracoke Seafood shop, or do they also prepare for commercial sales?

  2. I assume you mean larger trawlers when you say you have noticed more fishing boats at Ocracoke. Back in the 1970s dozens of shrimpers would tie up at the Park Service docks when the weather was bad and drove them into port.

    Lately, I too have noticed as many as four trawlers in the harbor some days. I assume they are selling fish and shrimp to the fish house. The fish house provides seafood for their own retail outlet, local restaurants, and, as far as I know, to commercial markets off the island.

    Perhaps someone with more knowledge of the fishing enterprise on Ocracoke can provide more information.