By Elizabeth Harris
October 16, 2020
Shannon Dunn O’Neal is certainly not the only Outer Banks woman to be raised in a commercial fishing family, but she is one of very few to follow the calling into the male-dominated industry.
O’Neal, 31, grew up in Buxton helping her father, Paul Dunn, on his 32-foot fishing boat. From the time she was 5, she worked the water, fishing pound nets and gillnets. But when she graduated high school in 2007, she didn’t choose fishing.
Instead she headed south to attend college, earning degrees from Cape Fear Community College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her original goal was to become a teacher, but during a 2013 internship in Costa Rica, O’Neal learned her father was having health problems. So, she came home to run the boat.
It wasn’t a difficult decision. Her family needed her. She knew how to fish. And, honestly, being on the water sounded better to the lifelong surfer girl than being confined indoors as a teacher. “I’m happy when I’m on the water,” she says.
O’Neal has been a full-time commercial fishing captain ever since and is slowly buying her father’s boat, aptly named the Shannon D.
In the summer, she fishes alone, gillnetting for Spanish mackerel. In the winter she has help – usually a mate, or her father, as she hunts king mackerel or sharks. After seven years as the only female commercial fishing captain in the area, O’Neal is used to people’s reactions about her job.
“When I tell people what I do for a living, they are like, ‘Wow! That’s crazy!’” O’Neal says. “I don’t know why fishing is still like that. It’s not that intense of a job.”
While outsiders might think O’Neal’s job is odd for a woman, the commercial fishermen around her don’t treat her all that differently, she says. In Buxton, they already knew her from working with her father and accepted her like they would any other young fisherman.
In 2017, when she married commercial fisherman Erick O’Neal and moved to Ocracoke, she felt accepted by the male-dominated fishing community there as well. If she runs into problems she can’t figure out, they are more than willing to help. But she misses having her own peer group.
“We know each and other talk to each other and I never felt like I wasn’t accepted,” O’Neal says. “The only difference is that the boys are fishing around their friends all day, and it would be cool if I had girlfriends of my own out there, too.”
The biggest challenge O’Neal faces isn’t on the water: boat maintenance.
“I learned to fish with my dad, but he never brought me down to show me how to fix a motor,” she says. “You live and learn with motors. It’s hard to pay someone to do that work, so it’s important to be able to work on stuff like that myself.”
These days O’Neal faces another land-based obstacle: raising two young children – Kaiden, 2, and Mikaela, 6 months. Like mothers the world over, she struggles to balance work and raising kids, a problem most men in her industry don’t have to consider.
“I don’t have the freedom I used to,” she says. “If Erick or my mom isn’t available, I have to arrange babysitters. There’s no daycare on Ocracoke. If none of that works out, I don’t go fishing.”
She keeps a good attitude, though, knowing that her children will grow up fast. When she can get on the water, it’s like a vacation, O’Neal says. “And when I have a good catch, it’s such a reward.”
O’Neal says she intends to fish Outer Banks waters for the rest of her life and is eager to share the experience with any girls wishing to learn her vocation.
“If anyone wants to go, I would teach them,” she says.