SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — As the public learns about new contaminants and spills into local waterways daily, many, including fisherman, are concerned about whether its safe to harvest in public waters in the wake of Hurricane Florence.
With oysters, clams, and other shellfish off limits for the time being, local fisheries are working to catch up with remaining aquaculture that’s still fair game.
Low on supply
On Tuesday afternoon, Blackburn Brothers, a seafood distributor in Carolina Beach, unloaded its first truckload of product since the storm hit. Before the delivery, all the typically bustling shop had for sale was shrimp.
For those who depend on harvesting aquatic life out of coastal and riparian waters, how will Hurricane Florence impact the local seafood economy?
“It’s going to hurt for a few months,” Joe Romano, co-owner of Seaview Crab Company, said.
As a supplier to about 25 local restaurants, Romano estimates Seaview Crab Compay lost about $30,000 in product once the power went out. Now that the storm’s passed, much of the sealife local fishermen depend on have been displaced, or are now covered in a layer of silt.
“When you have this much water moving all at once, it moves sand over mud bottoms, it moves fresh water into places that are typically saline,” Romano said.
Even without shellfish, Romano will make sure local restaurants won’t go without; Seaview Crab Company will continue sourcing from other coastal suppliers not impacted by the storm.
“We may not make a profit for a while but we’re going to keep everybody busy,” Romano said.
All state aquaculture harvesting regulations come from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), its spokesperson, Patricia Smith, said.
Before the storm, the DMF pre-emptively closed shellfish harvest, a decision Smith said will likely be continued through the season. Smith said the industry had already taken a hit from the storm.
“This is prime fishing season,” Smith said.
“Fisheries were impacted by loss of power, which translated to a loss of product given the inability to produce ice and keep things cool. Infrastructure damage, including docks, fishouses and vessels have also been reported,” Smith said.
Though the DMF has not yet conducted bacterial testing of coastal waters – because its equipment is offline and damaged – Smith said the division does not anticipate opening shellfish harvesting back up any time soon.
“They are filter feeders, they take into their bodies whatever is into the water,” she said. “If there’s sanitary sewer malfunctions, whatever is going into the water is what these guys are taking into themselves.”
And ultimately, humans eating these likely contaminated filter feeders, would be taking a risk, Smith said.
Since the storm hit, the DMF has not yet announced a closure finfish or crustacean harvesting. Smith said it’s unlikely they will since she can’t remember the last time in 30 years that they have. “Finfish are more mobile,” Smith said. “If there’s something they don’t like in the water, they’ll just move.”
Health of the water
As a crabber himself, Romano agrees with Smith’s sentiments. “You’re not going to catch crabs where there’s bad water,” he said. “The ecosystem kind of does its job.”
If sea life doesn’t die, it will simply move to where it can survive, he said. This week, Cape Fear River Watch, a local non-profit based out of Wilmington, has documented fish kills along the river and in Greenfield Lake. Their preliminary documentation shows fish kills near Castle Hayne, near the Dan Cameron and Isabelle Holmes bridges and in private ponds.
“We were all worried about river quality well before the storm,” Romano said. “It’s just on everybody’s minds now.”
Romano hopes the changing river quality from Hurricane Florence will help bring attention to the region’s reliance on local seafood. “Hopefully, this is going to draw awareness that in North Carolina, we need to be cognizant that we are a major [seafood] producer,” he said.
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