anything illustrates Ernie Foster’s fishing heritage on Hatteras
Island, it’s the Albatross Fleet’s net house, a weathered wooden
building near the Foster family home and graveyard.
who fishes – you need somewhere to store your nets,” Foster said,
opening the door to a room filled with shelves of vast cotton and nylon
nets. In racks on the ceiling and walls there were dozens – maybe
hundreds – of fishing rods and reels going back to the 1930s, when his
father Ernal Foster launched the Outer Banks’ first charter fishing
was hand-tied by my grandmother,” Foster said, picking up a piece of
the white cotton net, appearing as intact as if it were tied yesterday.
another shelf, Foster managed to find the net gauge that his
grandmother used to size the 2½-inch mesh. The gauge was essentially a
wood block that the netting was wrapped around and knotted. He said he
hopes that a use can be found someday for all the nets and retired
keep saying, ‘Well, I’ll use the guides,” Foster said about the old
wooden rods. “I hate to throw something away that possibly has a need.”
and heritage have long been important to Foster. Both will suffer, he
knows, without a clean environment. As a member of the N.C. Coastal
Federation’s Board of Directors, Foster, 69, serves as representative
of the coastal heritage of Outer Banks watermen. He also has become a
spokesman for a community that interacts with the coastal environment
each and every day all year round.
among those who are outspoken critics of conservation groups they blame
for onerous regulations, Foster said, the federation’s
non-confrontational approach to issues has helped it be effective on
the Outer Banks and with members of the fishing community.
think my favorite evaluation is, ‘They’re not that bad for an
environmental group’,” Foster said. “That is high praise. There is a
high level of respect.”
already has the historic standing to give him credibility in his
tight-knit community. His father was the entrepreneur who cleverly
launched the now-huge charter fishing industry on Hatteras Island in
1937. Foster has become a go-to person for comments on the island’s
heritage and recreational and commercial fishing issues.
his dry sense of humor and deep knowledge of the island and its issues,
the loquacious and opinionated Foster has become a media magnet,
interviewed for television news, quoted in newspaper articles,
appearing in documentaries and featured in magazines. Unfailingly, he
defends the island’s fishing heritage and rails against anything that
he believes threatens the island’s environment, traditions or
has little patience with critics who judge Hatteras folks as fools to
live on the little island where their ancestors are buried in their
backyards and tropical storms present annual dangers.
has a long history of coping with storms, he said, but villagers are
not silly enough to live in huge oceanfront mansions. “One pine tree in
a suburban neighborhood causes a lot more damage than seven shingles
blowing off my roof,” Foster said. “That’s pretty much what I see, in
he was student at N.C. State University, Foster said that ecology was a
new word. The concept, however, was familiar to him -- that’s the way
his father raised him.
would never throw anything away,” Foster said. “He did not believe in
wasting anything. He would not cut a tree that didn’t need to be cut.”
His father also taught Foster to catch only the fish you needed. “He did not believe in killing for the sake of killing.”
1958, his uncle Bill Foster released the first billfish ever released
off the coast, leading to the practice of catch-and-release
was always the belief that you didn’t take more than you needed,”
Foster said. “We would ask the customers, even before there
was a limit, ‘How many do you want?’”
point was drilled that you don’t plunder the ocean for your own gain.
You respect the tenuous balance of nature. “It just made sense – it was
pragmatic,” Foster said. “As long as there were fish there, you could
go back and catch a few.”
graduating, Foster taught high school physical sciences and biology in
Raleigh and Manteo and later was a guidance counselor. He retired in
the 1990s and moved back to Hatteras with his wife, Lynne, to take over
the operation of the Albatross Fleet, the three wooden boats his
father built between 1937 and 1953.
Birkemeier, who just started her second term on the federation’s board,
remembers Foster as a counselor in the 1980s at Manteo High School,
when she was a young mother involved in the PTA. Until she joined the
board, she said she did not realize the depth of Foster’s history.
brings such a heritage to the board that is critical to the work we do
to preserve the coast,” she said. “I think that’s important for the
Coastal Federation, to hear that story.”
also has strong connections to the commercial and charter fishing
interests. “Nobody else but Ernie can say, ‘Well, when my granddaddy
did this ...’” Birkemeier said. “It’s a very unique perspective that
very few people can say they have.”
clippings and photographs adorn the wall of the Albatross Fleet’s
office on the dock. Some of the photos were taken by Aycock Brown, the
legendary Outer Banks tourism promoter. The wall shows just how special
Foster’s relationship is to the coast. There’s 6-year-old Foster
standing next to a record-breaking blue marlin that electrified the
sport fishing world. There is him at 13, steering the Albatross with
his left foot while casually looking out the window.
“That was easy to do,” Foster said.
has seen significant change on the Outer Banks, and he is the first to
acknowledge that there is plenty good about the improvement in the
economy, education and amenities like nice stores and better access to
health care. He is also quick to condemn haphazard development,
careless stewardship of the environment and blind allegiance to
ideology rather than reality.
know that sea-level rise and climate change are real, Foster said. And
most acknowledge it’s human-caused, and the effects are being seen all
along the coast. But still, some refuse to remove their blinders.
“I deal with people all the time,” Foster said. “The knee-jerk reaction of some of the over-the-top fanatics is terrible.”
biggest challenge for the coast in the coming years, Foster said, will
be maintaining water quality. Since all water eventually flows to the
coast, water quality here could be directly affected by activities in
the Piedmont, the Triangle and the Triad.
“Fracking scares me to death,” he said.
Foster appreciates about the federation, he said, is the measured
approach executive director and founder Todd Miller takes as a coastal
ability to do that is special. He looks long-term. He looks at the big
picture. He doesn’t let rabid idealism get in the way of the bigger
thing about environmentalism that doesn’t work, Foster said, is making
policy that has no grounding in what the people who live in that
environment see. For instance, fishermen go past a spoil island every
day, and it is brimming with black skimmers. Despite that, access to
the nearby beach in Cape Hatteras National Seashore is restricted to
protect a few skimmers, as if their populations are critically
the fishermen, every one of them, are seeing that and it makes people
doubt you,” he said. “When they know you lie about something, why
should they believe you about other things?
“And the Coastal Federation doesn’t do that. They try to be as fair and honest and as transparent as they can be,” said Foster.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)
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