The deck of the Tamara Alane fishing trawler is full of ropes and dry, hardened nets. The boat’s four crew members are stacking bags of salt anywhere they can find space. The boat is at its home port in Hobucken, Pamlico County’s most remote town. Hobucken currently has a population of only 38 people, according to the 2021 census. The number of boats is much higher, but just a fraction of what once docked in the town’s various creeks and rivers.
Inside the cabin of the Tamara Alane, past a small galley and down a passageway to the bridge, Captain Charles Williams, Jr., or “Captain Charlie,” 51, is organizing the desk area near the helm and boat controls, looking at computerized maps with GPS on several separate screens. His fingers are permanently bent in the shape of a "C” from years of commercial fishing, arthritis and other small injuries. He’s been fishing commercially since he was 15.
“We were supposed to leave earlier,” he tells me with a chuckle. He is thin with strong shoulders. His face is lined from the sun and wind. His hair is blond, sun-bleached.
“Right now the shrimp are on their way to warmer waters,” he tells me pointing to the computer screen. “We are going to the state line.” That means heading north toward Virginia. They will be gone for about 10 days and are hoping to intercept the shrimp before the crustaceans get too far south.
Commercial fishing is dangerous. People can get caught up in—and sometimes injured or killed by--thick ropes, nets, metal lines and gears. The weather conditions can be unpredictable. When crews are out in open water, pulling nets and moving shrimp, each person gets 2 to 4 hours of sleep a night, if any.
Now, on deck, the crew is trying to get the brine tank to work properly. If they don’t, the tank, which holds and freezes the shrimp individually, will become a solid block of ice.
“My poor, poor achn’ back” jokes Eric Sampson, 37, as he emerges from the engine room. He has been commercial fishing for seven years. Before that, he was an electrician and technician at Cherry Point military base.
On the docks, Clyde Potter quickly inspects the Tamara Alane before it heads out. He owns the boat. He says that fishing used to be the main income in Hobucken. There was also a class at Pamlico County High School that taught students the trade; this helped the fishing industry find experienced crews, but it no longer exists.
“There are not as many fishermen now,” Clyde says. “Most work at the nearby phosphate plant or become tugboat operators. Some work at Cherry Point.” Over the past 15 years, floods have also caused many people to move away. “There used to be four or five school buses coming through Hobucken to pick up kids,” Clyde says. “Now there is only one.”
This is not unusual. In 1995, 5,494 commercially licensed fishermen worked North Carolina’s coasts. By 2019, it was only 2,535, according to North Carolina Sea Grant, a research and education organization that studies current issues affecting the North Carolina coast at North Carolina State University. The reasons behind this are often a source of disagreement. According to research by the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, commercial fishing is on the decline because of regulations, a decrease in packaging facilities, an increase in imported seafood, labor shortage and waterfront development.
Talking to the crew, Clyde gives his approval. His brow is furrowed, and he looks somewhat worried as, he says, he always is. He was a commercial fishing captain himself for 45 years.
“That man there is about the hardest working man there’s ever been,” he says of Captain Charlie.
As Tamara Alane pulls away from the dock, Captain Charlie yells, “Hold the stern.”
Leaving the docks, they will chart a course to Bay River. From there, it’s one hour to Neuse River junction, three hours on the Neuse toward Oriental, then past Beaufort and out to sea.
“God be with them and keep them safe,” Clyde says quietly as he watches them leave.
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