Food

The Hope of Fish Town

  • By Kristin Davis
  • Photography by Travis Dove

If it isn’t a hurricane, it’s the price of gas. If it isn’t a bad spawning season, it’s a closing inlet. In Wanchese, it’s always something. But Mikey Daniels — the leading son of the leading family here — spreads nets all over the world and proves that even small-town fishermen can always find a way.

wanchese

The champion of North Carolina’s fishing industry monitors his fleet of vessels from an office computer above his family’s fish house. His office is small and musty, and the only place for a visitor to sit is an old boat seat. Calendars on the dark-paneled walls curl at the corners.

From here, Mikey Daniels tries to save his business, his town, and a livelihood for North Carolina watermen.

Daniels is the owner of Wanchese Fish Company, one of the largest suppliers of seafood in the country. He’s a spry and slender man with a baseball cap on his balding head. He points out the fishing trawlers on a virtual map using GPS. He has five in Hampton, Virginia; two in a Morehead City shipyard; and three off the coast of South Carolina. One more, the Lady Anna, is on the water now, coming back home into Wanchese Harbor. The 94-foot Lady Anna has spent the past few days in the waters off Delaware fishing for croaker.

When the Lady Anna pulls up port-side to the docks later in the afternoon, Daniels is there waiting. He tosses rope to a crew member, ties his end to the dock, and hoists himself into the boat. At 62, he looks at least 10 years younger.

Bearded men in oilskin suits begin to fill the fish house. The conveyor belts start to hum. Four fishermen maneuver a giant vacuum over the boat and into the fish hole.

A few moments later, 2,000 pounds of gleaming croaker bounce across rolling conveyor belts. The smell of dust and gasoline mixes with the smell of salt and sea. The men work fast, sorting the small fish from the medium ones from the large ones, tossing out the occasional squid. The men shovel ice into wax-covered cardboard boxes and stack the boxes above head-high. They do not speak.

It’s an awful lot of work and an awful lot of fish. But one thing Mikey Daniels already knows: This catch will not pay for the gas it took to get to Delaware and back.

•••

Daniels knows what it’s like to be tested, to watch a business you built and believe in struggle, to wonder how it will survive another setback.

He has seen it most of his life, starting with his grandfather, then his father, and now his brothers and himself.

That first generation started with almost nothing in 1936, building a small fish-processing plant in Wanchese Harbor, a scaly town where men not unlike those from the Lady Anna cruised in from the Atlantic to unload their catches.

Daniels’s father, Malcolm Daniels, took over a decade later. He bought his first boat in 1955 and named it after his firstborn daughter, Faith Evelyn. He eventually acquired a fleet of vessels, some he built himself, others he bought used at auctions and upgraded. There was Capt. Malc after himself and Miss Maude after his wife, followed by Atlantic Pride. He painted the bottoms burgundy for good luck and emblazoned them with a dove to represent the Holy Spirit.

Malcolm was an industrious man who did what other people told him was not possible. He built the area’s first floating dry dock, a landing pier that can be alternately flooded and drained to get boats on and off for maintenance. He could transform junk — an old building he fetched from Ohio for $200 and reconstructed in Wanchese is still in use today. (It burned down once, but the family rebuilt it.) And while most fishermen took their catches to a distribution center in Hampton, Virginia, Malcolm drove his to fresh seafood markets in New York and Boston, Massachusetts, where he got more money.

Malcolm Daniels died in 1986. When Maude Daniels died two decades later, the business was divided among Mikey Daniels and his 14 siblings — 10 brothers and four sisters.

Daniels had been working for Wanchese Fish Company since he was 7 — old enough to shovel ice into wooden fish crates. When he grew stronger, he shoveled fish onto the ice and stacked the crates and loaded them onto tractor-trailers.

Daniels started making the runs up to Hampton and New York when he turned 16. His first haul was 30,000 pounds of fresh seafood, and he did that run himself.

He grew up sleeping in an attic that looked like military barracks with a row of narrow beds. Days usually began with a wake-up call at 4 a.m., and a breakfast of eggs and bacon and sausage served at a table big enough to play Ping-Pong on. Daniels and his brothers worked at the fish house until it was time for school; after school, they came back again, shoveling and stacking until Maude Daniels summoned them to dinner with a fire siren that people all over Wanchese could hear.

The Daniels family did not own a television. When they were not working, they were in church at Wanchese Assembly of God. Daniels still teaches teenagers Bible lessons on Sunday mornings.

After high school, Daniels packed his bags and went to a private Christian college in Florida. He wanted to be a missionary. But Daniels wound up in the school’s “Leper Colony” for not following the rules. When he skipped chapel one Friday night to go out on a date, the college put him on a plane back to North Carolina.

Daniels returned to the fish house. In 1979, he married Sue, a speech therapist from West Virginia who worked for the local school system. They have four children: Joshua, Micah, Sarah Joy, and Sadie. He coached their sports teams and taught them how to shrimp and swim in Wanchese Harbor. All of them went to college.

•••

Scallops are bottom-dwelling mollusks that can move. They have pretty pink shells and ridged edges. They were worth only about $1.50 a pound when Mikey Daniels first began to fish for them in the 1960s.

Decades later, though, the scallop is in culinary fashion. Restaurants demand the fleshy white muscle of the bivalve, touted for its sweet, mild taste and health benefits. Recently, scallop prices have fetched 10 times more than when Daniels first started working the boat.

Back in the 1960s, when Daniels was a young man, flounder was gold. A hundred boats a day left Wanchese and navigated Oregon Inlet, one of a few access points from the Atlantic for hundreds of miles. The vessels passed into the harbor and lined up a dozen deep at the Wanchese docks, where workers of the growing Wanchese Fish Company unloaded them, then filled them up with gas and sent them back out.

The Oregon Inlet is one of North Carolina’s most discussed empty spaces. An 1846 hurricane created the inlet, opening a passageway for boats from the Roanoke, Pamlico, and Croatan sounds for generations.

But nothing stays the same here very long; the wind and sea continue to shift the inlet. Today, it is two miles from where it began, and it moves at an average of 66 feet per year. Daniels has seen all of the changes in the inlet, and he spends most of his days trying to figure out how to keep it open, despite the drifting sands. He lobbies on behalf of his fellow fishermen to keep Wanchese alive as a fishing town.

“He is very passionate not just about the plight of the commercial fisherman, but everyone who works in the fishing industry,” says Edward Lee Mann, who grew up with Daniels and served alongside him on the Marine Fisheries Commission. “It affects so many of us around here.”

The Daniels family has been squarely in the middle of this fight — a fight between nature and government — for years.

In 1950, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began battle with the Outer Banks elements, dredging the inlet to keep it open for the ever-larger ships that passed through.

Twenty years later, Congress authorized a project to buttress the inlet with long, rock walls called jetties built hundreds of feet out into the ocean. Decades passed and environmentalists weighed in and lawmakers sparred and the inlet continued to clot.

Frustrated, Daniels lobbied those lawmakers. He ran for and won a seat on the Dare County Board of Commissioners.

By 1980, the jetty project completely stalled. The federal government promised to dredge instead. Unconvinced, Wanchese Fish Company rented an old fish house near Hampton, Virginia, and eventually bought a place there so the business could operate even if its boats couldn’t get into North Carolina.

There were other troubles. New fishing regulations limited the number of men on a boat, where they could fish, how long they could fish, and how much they could catch.

Daniels responded by taking one of his boats to Alaska, where the fishing season was longer. The company invested $1 million into the vessel, outfitting it with a hand-built mechanical shucking machine that removed the shell of the scallop.

They caught tons. Too many, it seemed. Alaska scaled back its fishing season, and the United States outlawed mechanical shucking.

“We’re sitting there with this million-dollar boat,” Daniels remembers. “We thought, ‘What are we going to do with it?’ Hard times is when you can learn something else. It’s a healing time.”

Wanchese Fish Company sent the mechanical shucking machine south, first to Uruguay and then to Argentina, where Daniels made a deal with the countries’ governments to study the ocean floor in exchange for harvesting scallops.

The shallow waters teemed with diminutive versions of the shellfish. Chefs craved quarter-size scallops, not the dime-size ones off the South American coast.

Daniels’s family business nearly went bankrupt.

•••

But Daniels’s brother Sam had an idea. In the mid-1990s, Sam met a vendor at a Japanese trade show who sold processed scallop patties. Surely, Sam thought, there is a way to create a big scallop from the tiny ones without processing the meat. All they needed was a binding agent. With help from North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he found a way to do it.

Wanchese Fish Company called it the scallop medallion. It costs about 20 percent less per pound than whole scallops. Retailers and restaurants clamored for them. The Danielses now sell about 2 million pounds of scallops per year.

“Who would have ever guessed? Who would have ever imagined?” Daniels says. “It was God. We’re dumb fishermen. We didn’t have a clue. We just worked. It took time. Eventually, the market began to open up. You’ve got to travel, find things, see what someone else is doing. If you stay here, you see the same crowd, the same naysayers.”

The price of the scallop could drop again, Daniels says, although all signs point to the opposite. If it does, Daniels has more ideas: He works with coastal grocers to get fresh seafood from ship to store in summertime, where its designation as North Carolina-caught makes it a customer favorite. He has plans to develop a website so anyone who wants fish or shrimp or scallops just off an east coast trawler can have them for next night’s dinner.

•••

Wanchese Fish Company today is among the largest suppliers of seafood in the country.

Every morning, Daniels drives past the remnants of this village’s once-thriving fishing industry.

Across the water lie the smudged outlines of million-dollar houses on the beaches of south Nags Head. Just six miles west, Manteo moves with tourists.

In Wanchese, it is silent, except for the squawking of gulls or the humming motor of the occasional trawler.

“There used to be crab houses, picking houses, filleting houses,” Daniels says as he drives by boatyards that just six years ago turned out a backlog of million-dollar sports yachts. Almost all of them are closed now, with for-sale signs stuck amid the weeds out front. “You’re losing jobs, losing communities.”

He shakes his head.

In the past year, Oregon Inlet has closed to fishing trawlers for months at a time. As the Wanchese fish houses fell quiet, Daniels went to fish and waterways meetings, courted lawmakers in Raleigh, and told TV news crews that dredging is only a temporary fix and fishermen need a permanent one.

This morning, it’s just Daniels and his buddies at Wanchese Marina. Daniels parks in the wet grass and leaves his keys in the ignition of his blue Chevrolet pickup. Inside, he pours himself a cup of coffee and watches the black sky turn red through a small, high window.

A fellow fish company owner sits down next to him and grimly announces the death of their industry.

Daniels won’t believe it.

“The darkest time,” he reminds his friend, “is right before dawn.”

Daniels finishes his coffee. “It ain’t over.”

Tomorrow, he’ll send the Lady Anna down the coast. The croakers aren’t biting up north, but the boats off the South Carolina shore are netting a lot of shrimp.

Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant
4683 Mill Landing Road
Wanchese, N.C. 27981
(252) 473-6004
fishermanswharfobx.com

Kristin Davis is a freelance writer who grew up in Goldsboro, where she returns often to visit family and eat barbecue. She lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with her husband, who’s also a Goldsboro native, and three cats.

This entry was posted in Coast, Food, May 2012 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Hope of Fish Town

  1. william proctor says:

    some of the best seafood i ever had was at the restaurant over the ice hose in wanchese

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