April 26, 2016

Newly reorganized Outer Banks Catch pulls out of Seafood Festival

Outer Banks Sentinel

Citing concerns over the lack of local seafood served at the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, Outer Banks Catch (OBC) has chosen not to participate in this year’s event, scheduled for Oct. 15.

A letter from OBC Executive Director Sandy Semans Ross stated that, "This action is not being taken lightly," adding that the event's advertising has "indicated that local seafood is the fare of the day at the event. Most of it is not; the public is being misled."

In an interview with the Sentinel, Ross emphasized that OBC decided it could not be a part of the festival and "look like we're endorsing it when it's really false advertising." She added that the Tourism Board "is promoting this using tax dollars. And they should be true to the festival's mission and not mislead the public."

The decision appeared to catch some people by surprise.

“There was no discussion about this prior to their pulling out, so it was a shock," said Seafood Festival Board Chair Mike Pringle in an interview. "They are busy getting things in order as a new nonprofit. But I really do hope they'll reconsider.”

Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles, who also serves as Seafood Festival Board secretary, said at the April 21 Dare Tourism Board meeting that he found the OBC decision “very unfortunate.”

He added that, "The biggest point of contention…was the fact that the seafood festival doesn't serve 100 percent locally caught seafood…We tried to explain...that that's certainly a long-term goal for the festival. We don't profess that all the dishes are local. It's an ongoing process.”

Asked about the potential impact of OBC’s decision on the festival, Ross said, "We had a significant presence at the festival, between education, the mullet toss and programming in between the bands and other events. As far as the restaurants participating, that is totally up to them."

Started with a grant in 2010 from the Golden Leaf Foundation, Outer Banks Catch was originally a Dare County initiative. While it did not cost the county any money, it did occupy county staff time, and there was interest from the beginning in changing the organization to a private nonprofit.

In 2012, OBC was primarily responsible — with the Outer Banks Restaurant Association, the Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce — for launching the Seafood Festival. The event’s mission includes “providing a fun and educational experience promoting, honoring and celebrating our coastal seafood heritage and community.”

The festival has grown over its four-year history, setting a record of 9,000 attendees and 16,000 plates of food sold last year, according to Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce President Karen Brown, along with the participation of 15 Outer Banks restaurants, 35 local and regional sponsors and six educational exhibits.

In February of this year, Ross said she met with OBC leaders and agreed to become their “interim executive director.” Working on becoming a private nonprofit, she said, several directors had become bogged down in the complicated process and resigned.

Ross and her six-member board of directors are currently applying for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status and a federal ID number as part of OBC's reorganization as a private nonprofit. Once this is completed, they will be recruiting a new roster of members.

The inaugural board of directors includes Amy Gaw, Currituck salt-maker and food writer; Wes Stepp, Dare County restaurant owner; Virginia Tillett, former Dare County commissioner and the widow of a commercial fisherman; John Griffin, Hatteras Island consumer; Jeff Aiken, Dare County fish dealer; and Brandon Marshall, who works in his family’s restaurant, Martell's in Hyde County. A seat designated for a Tyrrell County fisherman remains open.

Ross, whose husband Jay is a commercial fisherman and owner of Ross Seafoods, previously was the managing editor of the Outer Banks Sentinel and still contributes to the publication.     

She told the Sentinel that there had been persistent “concerns” about the Seafood Festival for the past three years. "Some restaurants were really good about selling local seafood, but they weren't happy because right next to them were people selling imports and gassed tuna," she said.     

Ross said she started receiving calls last November from people concerned that the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau —increasingly taking more responsibility for the festival — were putting together committees without any commercial fishermen.

Early this year, Wanchese-based commercial fisherman Dewey Hemilright went on a personal “outreach mission” to meet with the Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce and encourage the sale of more local seafood at the event. He said his offer was, “If they would ask the vendors how much seafood they need and what species, I will try to go source it and come back with a price.”

Hemilright said that these discussions occurred before any talk of OBC pulling out of the festival. He never heard back on his offer and added, “I do support [OBC's] decision 100 percent. If it’s the Outer Banks Seafood festival, then we ought to make sure we’re serving local Outer Banks seafood.”

Meeting with the festival's planning committee on April 12, Ross said she voiced some "complaints" about imports and gassed tuna. She said she offered a "pretty good compromise." Since each restaurant is already required to use one item of locally caught seafood, she suggested making a placard identifying the fisherman who caught it, the dealer who sold it and chef who prepared it.

Impressions of exactly what happened at that meeting vary. Ross said her proposal was rejected by the committee. But committee chairman Richard Hess said he felt "very positive" about the meeting: "I thought [Ross] had some great ideas, and I was planning to bring them up at the next Board of Directors meeting in May. So we were all shocked to see their statement when it came out."

Chamber President Karen Brown recalls being impressed by Ross's suggestion of looking into grants to help pay for more local seafood. "We were focusing on how to overcome the lack of local seafood and were getting ready to look into some possibilities,” she said. “That's where we left it."

“It is a shame that they won't be participating this year,” she added. “Certainly the festival is about trying to educate people on our local seafood. But, while serving 100 percent local seafood would be wonderful, we're not there yet."

During discussion of the issue at the April 21 Tourism Board meeting, board member and Dare County Commissioner Wally Overman said, "This is a very sensitive and emotional issue for Outer Banks Catch. It's one thing to go into a grocery store to get some seafood, and it's another thing to provide it. It's their livelihood."

Noting that the initial "impression" when the seafood festival began was that it would be "wholly fresh seafood from this area," Overman said OBC's "expectation was, if we're presenting the Outer Banks Seafood Festival as being seafood from the Outer Banks, it should be from here. And it shouldn't be carbon monoxide-gassed tuna from Thailand."

At the Tourism Board meeting, Vice Chair Ervin Bateman reviewed difficulties with access to locally caught fish.

"When you have the seafood festival," he said, "oyster season is closed, sea bass is closed, flounder is closed, grouper is closed, red snapper is closed. You have all these fish you cannot get...So we're buying the best quality seafood where we can get it."

"We wish Outer Banks Catch well," Nettles said at the meeting. "The festival, however, is dedicated to continuing that educational component. That's the mission of the festival and one of the most important reasons for the festival existing in the first place. So [this is] a parting of the ways, but hopefully we'll reconnect at some point."

(This article is reprinted with permission from The Outer Banks Sentinel.  For more more news and stories from the Outer Banks, go to www.obsentinel.com.)

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