In celebration of Got to Be N.C. month we are featuring local farms and businesses and their products that are Grown. Raised. Caught. Made. here. This week we focus on Caught and highlight Core Sound Seafood and Mr. Big Seafood in Harkers Island.
North Carolina is home to 134 aquaculture farms, 227 shellfish leases and 287 crab-shedding permit holders. Last year, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries issued more than 5,000 standard commercial fishing licenses. North Carolina ranks 15th in the nation in pounds of fish and shellfish caught. In 2012, this catch was valued at more than $73 million.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services promotes aquaculture farms and commercial fisheries through its Got to Be NC Seafood Marketing program. To better connect with the industry, the department has a seafood marketing office in Elizabeth City.
Eddie Willis is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman with a long family history of fishing the Core Sound in Carteret County. His great-great-grandfather fished this area and his family operated a fish camp on Shackleford Banks until the 1980s. Willis and his wife, Alison, are co-owners of Core Sound Seafood and owners of Mr. Big Seafood. Core Sound Seafood is a community-supported fishery that sells local seafood to members in the Triangle, Triad and Boone areas. Mr. Big Seafood is a retail market in Harkers Island that sells fresh-caught seafood.
Originally from Raleigh, Alison met Eddie met during her travels to the coast, fell in love and married in 2011. Since then, Alison has immersed herself in the family business. She can spot a keeper from a throwback when it comes to soft-shelled crabs, and she enjoys explaining how they get their soft shells. “People love to eat soft shell crabs,” she said. “But may not necessarily know how they get their soft shell. Sharing with them is a fun and educational experience.” Soft shell crab season starts for them with the first full moon in April.
Eddie Willis fishes mostly in the Core Sound, catching soft-shell crab, shrimp and pound-net flounder. His catch is sold at Mr. Big Seafood and a few local restaurants. The Willises also work with five or six other local fishermen to supply Core Sound Seafood.
Similar to a community-supported agriculture program, in which consumers buy produce, dairy or meat directly from a farmer, a community supported fishery allows you to buy seafood directly from a fisherman. Consumers buy shares that are delivered on a weekly basis during the season. The seafood is available in 2-pound and 4-pound shares. A 2-pound share is enough to feed a typical family of four. Core Sound Seafood has pickup locations in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, Boone and Winston-Salem, and sells its catch at three Weaver Street Market locations.
“The local food movement caught on quicker with other commodities,” said Alison. “However, local, wild-caught seafood is catching on. The biggest obstacle is in teaching people how to cook it, sharing recipes and introducing them to fish the may not have eaten before. But I think consumers are getting more comfortable with fresh, local seafood at the market.”
Core Sound Seafood operates for two 10-week seasons a year. Fish and shellfish, like vegetables, are seasonal, so you get a different varieties depending on the season. The busiest time of the year is during the fall when flounder is the dominant catch.
“Local seafood offers many advantages,” Alison said. “The first is, locally caught is usually closer to being just out of the water so it should be fresher. It also has a positive economic impact on our local economy and supports our fishermen. I like being able to share with people that the soft crab they ate today was caught by my husband, we shedded it, and at our market you bought it.”
Although local seafood is catching on, 80 percent of seafood consumed in North Carolina is imported. One way to change this is to educate consumers about looking for local seafood at markets and restaurants. Alison serves on the board of N.C. Catch. This group works to educate consumers and to promote local, wild-caught seafood. The group also works to recognize restaurants and businesses that use locally caught. The NCDA&CS Marketing Division also keeps an online seafood directory supporting these businesses.
Eddie and Alison have a 2-year-old daughter, and they would love for her to be part of the family business. “Supporting local seafood and increasing demand for N.C. seafood will help our young people see a future in fishing,” said Alison. “The more people who are aware that buying North Carolina-caught directly impacts the economies of our coastal communities, and that N.C. seafood is delicious, the brighter our future will be.”