CAROLINA BEACH — Since July, a four-man crew of local commercial fisherman has switched their catch, resetting their lines on a different kind of haul: marine debris.
Unlike their lifelong trade of harvesting shellfish, the crew has found stocks of marine debris are plentiful. After walking nearly all the marshes from Sneads Ferry to Zeke’s Island, the men have encountered a seemingly endless yield of abandoned marine and construction debris.
Each storm and tide cycle churns up new debris for the crew to collect. With a 24-foot Carolina Skiff and a few homemade sleds assembled for clamming, the men trek through soupy shorelines, hauling about one ton of debris a day out of the waterway.
“We all grew up on the river — all of us did. But from the very first day we started this project, we had no idea the amount of debris out there,” crew supervisor Joe Huie said.
Tapped by the North Carolina Coastal Federation to help carry out a yearlong $2.4 million federal abandoned vessel and marine debris-removal program, the team is happy to have found steady work and put their skills to use. On their first day working the contract, the crew hoped they’d be able to find enough material to satisfy the program. Instead, they’ve found a theoretically neverending job (so long as the contract keeps getting renewed).
“After the first day, I said, ‘We could do this forever.’ I’m not even joking. We all looked at each other and said, ‘We could do this forever.’ Because that’s just how much it was,” Huie said. “We found so much debris we didn’t know if we could do the job. We were just physically exhausted at the end of the day. The first summer we did the contract I lost 27 pounds. It was brutal. It was a hot summer.”
Working demanding, 10-hour days, the team beats crowds at public boat ramps, filling dumpsters full of material that may otherwise have continued contaminating the ecosystem. They focus on treated materials (think: pilings with a greenish hue, which often contained arsenic or chromium before 2004 or wood treated with creosote, a black tar-like toxic pesticide used in the mid-20th century) and runaway docks or bulkhead structures that can wipe out marshes.
“There’s not a day —- we never turn up empty handed,” he said. “Never. Never.”
‘It’s hard but I’ve worked hard my whole life.’
Along with his father, Cpt. Joey Huie, Huie Jr. tapped Sneads Ferry fisherman Michael Willis and Joshua Whitney to fill out the team. As the only southeastern crew on the program (the other four crews are assigned to the central N.C. coastline), the team has hit Permuda Island in Holly Ridge, Masonboro Island, Carolina Beach State Park, and is currently wading their way through Zeke’s Island, just south of Fort Fisher.
“I am completely and 100% convinced — and not just because I’m doing it — but I’m convinced that we could start work up towards Jacksonville. If you start in Jacksonville and worked all the way down to here, for instance, you could start over when you’re done and you could do it again. And I guarantee you it would be the same.”
After decades on the water, the work is different but familiar for the four-man crew. “I’ve been nubbin’ oysters since I was 10 years old,” Huie said. The work can be grueling but it’s nothing he’s not already used to. “It’s hard but I’ve worked hard my whole life.”
Mostly focusing on clams, Whitney eyes “whatever’s live out there” or whatever the market is calling for, he said.
“It’s a hard living. When it’s good, it’s great. Whenever it’s bad, it’s horrible,” he said. “Commercial fisherman, they don’t do it, I mean — you’ve got to love the job to be a commercial fisherman. Otherwise, you’d never make it. You’ve got to love being out here.”
Compared to his fishing career, Whitney said the reliability of the debris-removal work comes as a relief after a lifetime of financial unpredictability.
“It’s good, the consistency of it. It’s something steady,” he said. “You might go out there commercial fishing and make a couple hundred dollars a day. Go out there tomorrow, make 30 bucks.”
Whitney also called the new assignment rewarding. “It gives us a good sense of accomplishment,” he said. “Everything that we take out really in some way shape or form is poisoning the environment. So we feel like we’re making a good impact.”
Though grateful for the gig, longtime shrimper and clammer Willis admitted he misses fishing for live catch. “There’s aspects of it I miss big time,” he said. “The markets had become so volatile after Florence. It’s a real hit and a miss with the paycheck. So I think the consistency is something that we all like.”
Ted Wilgis, regional project lead for the Coastal Federation, said its choice to hire commercial fisherman to comb through the marshes was twofold. “It’s a combination of one: The expertise was there,” he said. “And two: Trying to support an integral part of our coastal economy.”
“After Florence, the Cape Fear River and the New River, these rivers were essentially just decimated. All the oysters were dead. The clams were dead. The fish got shoved out,” Wilgis said. “A lot of people who relied on those resources, those fisheries for income, just lost it. There was just no opportunity for many of these guys to make their traditional living.”
The flood of freshwater and runoff that dumped into the New River inlet north of Topsail Island after Florence wiped out the men’s main source of income.
After the storm, Whitney remembers returning to his favorite spot only to find a graveyard of shells. “You could go out there and work an area the size of this boat and get as many as you want,” he said. “But then after Florence you go out there and the water’s clear and as far as you can see there was nothing but dead clam shells everywhere. I mean everywhere. Hundreds and hundreds of them out there.”
Though clamming is not as bad now as it was after the storm, Willis said it’s not the same. “They still haven’t came back yet like they should be,” he said.
Covid-19 also hit the industry, when restaurants across the entire East Coast shut down in the spring and stopped ordering seafood. From Florida to New York, Cpt. Huie said he couldn’t find a buyer. “You just can’t sell but so many clams,” Joey said. “We couldn’t sell to them up north, so it finally, we just shut down too because we had nowhere to go with the product.”
A “dying trade,” Whitney said, commercial fishermen have faced regulatory pressures and supply and demand inconsistencies for decades.
“There’s not a fraction of the commercial fisherman as there was 10 years ago,” Willis said.
Half a million pounds
In late December, the crew headed off on their last trip working Carolina Beach State Park’s 3-mile shoreline.
“With every tide cycle, there’s a potential for more trash — more marine trash,” parks superintendent Jerry Helms said from the foot of the boat ramp. “I know without a doubt the park’s shoreline are cleaner than they’ve ever been.”
In tough-to-find spots, the crew waits for low tide, anchoring the skiff well outside the grass before trudging through the mud to find the high tide line where debris gets deposited to fill up their sleds. They take as many trips as they can, stopping only when they get a sense the skiff is as heavy as the waterway will allow, usually stopping before hitting a ton and a half of material.
The biggest danger they encounter is yachts. Though they’ve got flags on the boat and wear neon vests, luxury boats rarely slow down, leading white caps to break over the hull.
Once back at the boat ramp, they load up a dumpster reserved just for their efforts. During their scoping of Masonboro Island, they removed more than 50 tons of material — about nine dumpsters worth of junk.
“The hardest thing to really convey is just the amount in volume,” Wilgis said. Between all five N.C. teams working the contract funded by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Protection Program, Wilgis said they’ve collected more than 253 tons — about as heavy as two blue whales — at halfway through the contract.
“So basically half a million pounds have been collected by basically 21 people since July. And that’s just insane the amount of stuff that’s out there,” he said. “The volume is huge.”
Besides de-littering the waterway, Wilgis said the crew’s work on the waterway helps the Coastal Federation, which frequently advocates for environmental regulatory changes, hone in on how to cut down on the excess debris problem.
“They’re talking about, the way they’re building their docks: Are people getting these docks inspected?” Wilgis said. “In most cases, no. For pilings, are they driving them down 6 inches? 10 feet? Building codes could be adjusted.”
Required notices sent to coastal residents before and after storms could be useful, Wilgis said, to encourage securing lose items and damaged docks. More oversight over marine debris contracting may be helpful; the team frequently finds piling cutoffs from contract work.
For Huie Jr., one of the biggest culprits is the styrofoam wrapped in black canvas that quickly degrades used to float docks. The foam easily breaks down into unmanageable, tiny pieces, posing a threat to marine life.
While a lot of debris that ends up in the waterway due to storms can’t be prevented, Huie Jr. said the bulk of it could be. “I would say at least 50-60 percent is human error. Even structures — they know that their structure is in disrepair.”
This summer the crew dismantled and removed an 80-foot-by-16-foot dock tucked behind Masonboro Island. Cpt. Huie said between the tides, it probably knocked out more than an acre of marsh grass. “That thing was just swiping around in there,” he said.
After removing large dock structures on Permuda Island, Whitney said he returned months later to find the previously razed grass had filled in.
“It was so thick and grown together,” he said. “Man, it was beautiful how it can all come back like that to where you can’t even walk. That was great.”
‘This is all of ours out here’
Once the crew passes over Zeke’s Island, they may head further north to Sneads Ferry and pick up where they started. Wilgis is looking into hiring a new crew to tackle the Southport and Oak Island shoreline, which is surely loaded with material after Isaias.
All four men said they hoped the contract, which runs through September, gets renewed. “We get to earn a living but we also get to give back at the same time. It’s a win-win for everybody,” Huie Jr. said. “We’re real proud of what we do. We like doing this. We think we’re making an impact.”
Motioning to where Snow’s Cut meets the Cape Fear River, Huie Jr. said he was grateful to work on the water.
“This is ours. This is all of ours out here,” he said. “So if we can take care of it, it’s a good thing.”
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org