Jamie Parker Jr. and his uncle, Reid, were washing down the boat at their dock in Colington Wednesday after harvesting 500 pounds of crabs.
They had just sold them to Outer Banks Seafood up the road, but they didn’t know how long they’d still have a place to sell.
“We’re taking it day by day,” Jamie Parker Jr. said. “The demand is there, but the markets are closed.”
Restaurants and most fish markets such as those in New York and Baltimore have shut down following government mandates to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Local restaurants are not open to in-house dining and the county is not allowing tourists into the Outer Banks.
Outer Banks seafood markets are having to shut down as well, said Glenn Skinner, director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association.
“Pretty much everything is at a standstill,” Skinner said. “The dealers are sitting on fish they’ve already bought.”
It’s one of the many industries suffering during the pandemic, but the commercial fishers and dealers could lose a chunk of their annual income if markets remain closed for next two or three months.
North Carolina seafood is a $78 million dollar a year industry. Crabs alternate with shrimp as the seafood with the most dockside value, reaching about $19 million annually. Dockside values are the amount the catch is sold for to the seafood dealers.
Dare County led the state in 2018 in dockside value at $19.3 million.
The state licenses roughly 2,600 people annually to fish commercially and 547 seafood dealers.
Skinner said it was already hard for licensed fishers to make money after fuel costs, boat maintenance and gear repair was taken into consideration. These unprecedented circumstances could devastate the industry, he said.
Fishers were told to stop bringing their catch at O’Neal’s Sea Harvest in Wanchese on Tuesday.
“They’re getting a vacation now,” said Benny O’Neal, owner of the market. “How long this lasts will be the difference maker.”
Outer Banks seafood still has a market in Philadelphia where customers can buy fresh crabs in a seafood market and cook them at home. Other cities have similar markets, but it is a small part of the restaurant demand, Skinner said.
Buyers can buy and freeze seafood, but it takes up a lot a valuable freezer space and can tie up millions of dollars in inventory, said Jamie Parker Sr., also a Colington fisherman and crabber.
“We’re at the mercy of the market,” he said.
Parker will set 800 pots or traps during the lucrative soft-shell crab season which only lasts about a month and peaks on Mother’s Day in waters off the Outer Banks, the younger Parker said. Soft-shell crabs generate a large part of his annual income.
Each year, blue crabs shed their hard, outer shells and for a few hours remain soft. They are a delicacy here and in large city markets.
Harvested crabs on the verge of shedding are placed in water in shallow trays about 8 feet long until they slip from their shells. The crabs must be placed in a cooler soon after or the shell begins to harden again. The work is nearly 24 hours a day.
If the seafood markets remain closed, there will be a glut of soft shell crabs and few places to sell them, he said.
“It’s a go, go, go time,” the senior Parker said. “What we’re worried about is, is there going to be a market to go to?”
Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, email@example.com