Story By Jo Ann Mathews
Photography By Suzy King
Besides sun, sand and surf, another big “S” ranks high on the list of Brunswick County attractions: seafood.
Two billboards on U.S. Highway 17 and another on N.C. Highway 130 announce “Brunswick Catch.” The phrase “Fresh from local fishermen to you” follows. A fisherman and net complete the image.
Brunswick Catch is a nonprofit organization that promotes the seafood industry in Brunswick County and encourages residents and visitors to buy local seafood. Members of the group, which include commercial fishermen, dealers, restaurant owners and people interested in preserving the industry, display its logo.
“It’s a matter of awareness for the consumer,” says Jackie Varnam, President of the Brunswick Catch Board of Directors. She and her husband, Nicky, have owned Garland’s Fresh Seafood, Inc. (also known as Honey’s Place) in the Varnamtown area of Supply for 26 years. Nicky’s father, Garland Varnam, founded the processing business in 1954, and Varnam believes it’s the oldest seafood operation in Brunswick County. She explains that the catch varies week by week and year by year no matter the season or type of seafood, so it’s difficult to quote exact numbers. However, she estimates that when shrimp is in season, Garland’s processes 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of it per week.
Patrick Kelly, Chef and General Manager of Fishy Fishy Café in Southport, says Royce Potter of Potter’s Seafood in Southport and Jon Haag at Haag & Sons Seafood in Oak Island approached him about becoming a member of Brunswick Catch. He agrees with the purpose of the organization and joined.
“I try to buy all of my seafood locally,” he says, and adds that he buys 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of seafood a year. “That’s how shrimpers and fishermen make their living.”
Jack Holland, commercial port agent at North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, provides figures that show Brunswick County has 528 full-time commercial fishing licenses, 367 shellfish licenses, 97 dealers and 900 commercial boats registered. He explains that he operates in an advisory capacity to Brunswick Catch and keeps members abreast of information in the fisheries industry. A major concern now is how the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will affect the seafood industry in North Carolina.
Oak Island resident May Moore says she became aware of the complexities facing the seafood industry when she was a Brunswick County commissioner. She approached Jim Bradshaw, County Director of Economic Development, for solutions. A group of organizers took action.
North Carolina Sea Grant developed a workshop. Moore’s proposal for a Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation (BEMC) Community Grant was accepted, and other corporate sponsors, businesses and individuals provided further funds. Brunswick Catch was incorporated in May 2009 and held its first membership meeting in May 2010.
Moore explains the goal is to maintain a dominant presence of the seafood industry in the county. Toward that end, the organization hopes to provide a consumer guide so that people will know which season specific seafood is available, how to recognize fresh seafood, how to clean it and how to cook it. A cookbook may be in the offing as well.
“We’re trying to make people aware of the seafood industry in Brunswick County,” Moore says. “Everything dealers and restaurants have isn’t local because seafood is seasonal,” she adds. “We’re not attacking other seafood. We’re marketing Brunswick County seafood.”
Information from the Brunswick County Economic Development Commission states that the county is the second for population growth of the 100 counties in North Carolina and the 37th fastest growing county in the United States. Its population is estimated at 110,000.
With the changing landscape of Brunswick County, the seafood industry has several concerns. Development of waterfront property limits the dock space for shrimpers and fishermen and causes a higher cost for the available space. With the increase in population, demand exceeds supply, yet fishermen depend on the sale of their catches to make a living and preserve the industry in the county.
“I’m afraid shrimping is a dying industry,” says Dean Mason of Supply, Treasurer of Brunswick Catch. “It’s hard to make a good living at shrimping.”
She understands the dilemma. She has worked in the industry, and her sons are currently shrimpers. “We’re trying to help local fishermen,” she says. “I don’t want to see the industry die.”
Despite attempts at promoting Brunswick Catch, several area restaurant personnel are not aware of its existence.
Marilyn Howarth, who manages Calabash Seafood Hut along with her sister, Gail Russ, says she doesn’t know anything about the organization.
“We do try to use local seafood when we can,” she adds.
She explains that her brother-in-law, Alan Russ, orders the seafood, but when asked about Brunswick Catch, he says, “I’ve never heard of it.”
Justin Harkey, General Manager of The Isles in Ocean Isle Beach, says he has attended some meetings and participates in the program when seafood is available.
Doris Nance, owner of Capt. Nance’s in Calabash, says she’s heard of the group but doesn’t know much about it.
“We just started shrimping season (in mid-June), but it’s not enough for the supply,” Nance says. “I will buy it if they could catch enough to provide for everybody so we wouldn’t have to look to others.”
Nance says she buys 2,500 pounds of shrimp each week, but she identifies her restaurant as a small business. “I would love to buy good old North Carolina shrimp, good old North Carolina oysters and good old North Carolina flounder,” she says. “If they would do the packing, peeling and deveining, I would be glad to buy from them.”
The organization is counting on its advertising and promotions to bolster interest in buying locally.
“Brunswick County is getting on its feet as far as promoting itself,” Holland says.
“We’re trying to make people aware,” Varnum says. “Just ask for Brunswick Catch.”
Learn more about the Brunswick Catch organization at www.brunswickcatch.com and on Facebook.