August 7, 2008

The new fish house in Hatteras is an investment
in the future of the island’s heritage


The slow, and some would say inevitable, demise of Hatteras Island’s commercial fishing industry is an issue that has occupied the minds of the industry’s fishermen for some time now.  Increasingly, strict government regulations and the flood of cheap, imported seafood have made it difficult for commercial fishermen to reap even a meager profit, resulting in more and more fishermen abandoning the trade.

But Tilman Gray, a commercial fisherman and owner of Avon Seafood, one of the island’s last operating fish houses, isn’t going down without a fight.

Just a few weeks ago, Gray’s Hatteras fish house, located at the end of Saxon Cut Road, got a much-needed, $60,000 face lift. The old, wooden building, which had been the site of the company’s Hatteras operations for about 20 years, was torn down, and three and half weeks later, a brand-new metal building was erected in its place.

At 30-by-50 feet, the new fish house has almost twice the space as before, and in addition to more space, now boasts updated equipment and a larger storage freezer with a new icemaker. 

Such a sizeable investment in an industry that, by some accounts, is standing on its last legs may seem quite risky to the casual observer. But to the commercial watermen, fish house employees, and islanders, the investment was an important and necessary move toward preserving the fishing heritage of the island and securing the future of the craft. 

“People were saying 10 years ago that commercial fishing would only be around for four or five more years, so maybe we’ll get another four or five good years out of this fish house,” says Barry Austin, who owns the building and the property, and is both an island native and a firm believer in the virtues of commercial fishing.

For Gray and his employees, updating the fish house, which services as many as 100 boats per season and provides ice for many of the island’s charter boats, was simply a necessity. 
“The old one was worn out, outdated,” says Gaston Foster, an island native and life-long waterman.

“We needed it. It was time,” Tilman Gray says.  “We’re expecting big things from our government,” he added, half-smiling in a way that made his statement ring as hopeful as did ironic.
Ever-faithful to their passion, the fish house employees didn’t miss a step during the three-week construction process. Even without a fish house in Hatteras, they continued to service all the boats that depend on them, trucking in ice everyday from Wanchese and Avon, and packing out and storing the catches wherever they could.

“It wasn’t easy, but we got it done,” says Foster.

In spite of the obstacles facing them, one thing seems certain— the island’s commercial watermen refuse to throw in the towel, and, holding fast to what remains of their once ubiquitous industry, will do everything they can to ensure its continued existence.

“What else are we going to do, you know?” said Tony Burbank, manager of the fish house. “This is what we love.”

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