SNEADS FERRY — As the cold weather kept a grip on the area this week, Sneads Ferry’s fish houses were quiet.
They worked on equipment, readied boats and otherwise prepared for the boats to start running and fishing to start. A long winter that seems to have continued into spring has had them waiting a bit longer than usual.
“We should start seeing things getting started by mid-April,” said Timmy Millis, whose grandfather, Ben Millis, started B.F. Millis & Sons in 1946.
The weather, good and bad, has always played a part in the commercial fishing industry, but that’s expected.
But in a community where fishing and a love for the ocean are entwined in its history, the closing of one of its fish houses is a reminder of challenges that go beyond Mother Nature.
L.T. Everett & Sons ceased operations Dec. 31 after 67 years in business.
Jimmy “Gig” Everett, who operated the family business with his brother, Tommy, for 43 of those years, said it had become increasingly difficult to keep up with costs with a decline in the amount of seafood coming in. He cited a decrease in product due to state and federal regulations that affect many of the fish that they sold, such as sea bass, grouper, flounder and red drum.
Everett said the bottom line for his business was that fishermen were not able to bring in as much seafood to the dock as they once did.
“We couldn’t get enough seafood to keep up going,” he said.
The regulations, intended for the protection of the fish stocks, vary by species and can be complex with harvest quotas, size limits and times of year you can fish all part of the equation.
There are arguments for and against them, but Timmy Millis said that there is still an impact to business.
“A lot of it is you just can’t work like you used to,” he said.
He said there was no fishing for speckled trout this winter after coastal waters closed to harvest in February after cold stun events were reported. While cold stuns are a naturally occurring event and the closure allows the fish to recover to spawn this spring, there’s no harvest of speckled trout again until June 15.
“The winter months are when you need to be catching them,” Millis said.
Matt Mitchell juggles three businesses and sees different challenges at each.
“Every business has challenges every day; that’s the nature of the beast. You take it day by day,” he said.
At the fish house, regulations are only one part of doing business. High fuel prices can make it unprofitable for fishermen to run their boats for smaller harvests, and seafood imports compete with seafood caught in the United States.
But you won’t find imports at Mitchell Seafood or Sneads Ferry’s other seafood houses.
Mitchell worked as a commercial fisherman until the early 1990s. He got out to try other ventures but always planned to return to the fishing industry.
He recently saw that opportunity, and in June 2011 Mitchell Seafood opened at the site of the former Sneads Ferry Seafood, which had been operated by the late Billy David Millis, who died in January 2010.
The fish house’s tradition continues, keeping fishermen in jobs and to provide customers with fresh, wild-caught seafood.
Mitchell doesn’t see that changing.
“When all the fish houses have closed, this one will still be here,” he said. “That’s what we hope.”
Randy Millis, manager at Mitchell Seafood, is counting on that as well. The fish house was started by his grandfather, Jack Millis.
“We wanted to keep that Sneads Ferry heritage going,” he said.
To keep going, Randy Millis said, they are doing their part to adapt.
“We’re having to step out and do things a little different,” he said.
While continuing to process the seafood that comes to dock, they are doing more to meet the needs of customers both retail and wholesale. That can mean cleaning the fish for them or, if their boats aren’t catching what they need here, they’ll go to where they can.
“We cater to the customer a little bit more; do different things to try to generate more money. Instead of waiting for the boats to come in, we try to do different things to make it easier on the customer,” Randy Millis said.
At Davis Seafood, family owned and operated since 1949 at its current location at Wheelers Point, trips to farmers markets and the use of social media to keep customers up to date on the season’s harvest are part of the plan.
Jody Davis, who takes care of business operations at Davis Seafood with his wife, Vickie, said their business is somewhat different in that everything, from the fish house to the boats they run, are all family operated. And at Davis Seafood, their business is primarily shrimp.
Davis said that means they have one season that runs from April to November or early December.
“It’s almost like the farmers. When we’re working we need to do all we can,” he said.
He said that they try to reach their customers any way they can, and his wife has started selling at farmers markets at Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington.
“We’ve really gotten a good customer base from Wilmington,” Davis said.
And their Facebook page helps to announce the arrival of fresh shrimp at the docks in Sneads Ferry.
“It’s hard to beat getting fresh shrimp right off the docks. We have people waiting to the boats to come in,” he said.
Davis said they are looking forward to what they hope will be many more seasons.
“We’re going to be here as long as we can,” he said.