Potter’s Seafood in Southport is a Family Legacy
Fifth-generation fisherman Royce Potter of Potter’s Seafood is the last of his kind in Southport.
Royce Potter always knew what he would be when he grew up. His father, Leroy, was the fourth generation of Potter men who fished and sold the bounties of the sea to the people of Southport, and Royce knew he would be the fifth.
“No, there was no pressure at all,” Royce says with a laugh. “My dad and uncles never forced it. But I enjoy it, the freedom of it, and I have so many good memories of fishing.”
It cannot be denied that what the Potter family has created through five generations is far beyond a family business — it’s a legacy.
Potter’s Seafood began in 1889. Royce’s great-great grandfather moved to Southport and bought a house on the water. At that time the yacht basin hadn’t been created, and the house (which now sits smack on the basin, a coveted part of town) was situated on a river that led to the sea. So he began to fish.
Hauling in a catch every day, he walked off his boat and sold what he had to the people of Southport. It was as simple as it gets: food straight from the sea, caught by a neighbor. Not much has changed at Potter’s Seafood since then.
Today Potter sells fish from a small yellow shack nestled on the yacht basin, hidden by Fishy Fishy Cafe. Each day he goes out on his boat, and when he returns, he puts the shrimp and fish on ice to sell to customers who stop in the store.
In his heart, Royce is a fisherman. Hitting the water isn’t about meeting certain quotas, making more than the next guy or pushing a crew to work harder and faster. It is about what he learned from decades of family before him; it is about honoring the ocean and bringing back good fish for people to eat. It is wild sea to table.
Being on the water seems to be part of the family genes. Royce tells the story of his dad’s solo boat trip all the way to Key West as a young boy of just 16. Leroy Potter passed away in 2014, and the story still makes his son chuckle. “Could you imagine, a 16-year-old kid all alone captaining a boat? But we have all grown up a generation of fishing families.” Leroy’s brothers are not fishing for Potter’s Seafood today, but they are still on the water. One is a ferry captain, another is a nuclear submarine pilot, and another runs the Army Corps of Engineers dredges.
While the Potter family passion for fishing has stayed the course, Southport has changed, of course. What was once a small, undiscovered, riverside hamlet has boomed into a highly populated area. When the Yacht Basin was created, the Potter family found themselves positioned on a prime piece of real estate. As the town continued to grow, so did the fishing industry. In the heyday of Southport fishing, Royce says, there were more than 60 fishing boats coming in and out of Southport.
When Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954, it slammed docks and boats, requiring Southport residents to spend considerable time and resources to rebuild. The fishing industry never seemed to recover, yet Potter’s Seafood survived.
In 1976 Potter’s Seafood owned the building that currently houses Fishy Fishy. On one side, Potter’s Seafood sold the fresh catch; on the other they owned and operated a restaurant with dishes featuring what they caught. It was all a family affair, of course. But as real estate prices escalated and the family member driving the restaurant side took a new career path, things changed. Today, Potter’s Seafood is the only one left fishing the ocean beyond Southport and returning to the yacht basin to sell the catch.
“We have been here for so long,” Royce says, “and been involved [in the fishing business] for so many years. I would hate to see Southport lose its fishing tradition, but we couldn’t do it if we didn’t have this [property] in the family.”
Royce speculates that there are many reasons why so many Southport shrimpers and fishing boats failed. But he feels strongly that the sheer number of regulations imposed on the fishing industry have made the business model of fishing unprofitable. While Royce believes we need to take care of our natural resources (his livelihood is, after all, based on a healthy sea), he explains that requirements placed on fishermen in this part of the world mean they lose the battle at market to international fish harvesters. Overseas, regulations are light, which means production costs are lower and fish at the supermarket can be sold for a lot less than what businesses like Potter Seafood can do. But, as Royce points out, the international fish farming practices aren’t clean, sustainable or healthy and the seafood isn’t as tasty.
“It works against the local fishermen,” Royce says. “People don’t know the truth. When you come into my shop you are talking to a fisherman. We are not a seafood counter at the grocery store. We know what we caught, when we caught it and how.”
In an effort to keep the last vestiges of Southport’s fishing heritage alive, Royce works as an advocate in the community. He takes kids shrimping through the N.C. Maritime Museum summer program, gives tours for the Southport Wooden Boat Show and also speaks during programs at the Maritime Museum. “I want to dispel any myths,” he says. “People need to be aware that we are losing that small fishing village. I want people to hear how it works, to understand why we do it and how. I want them to hear the fisherman’s side.”
Royce and his wife, April, keep Potter’s Seafood going. He continues to catch, April staffs the storefront and keeps the books, and Potter’s Seafood is able to continue the legacy of his family and the role they have played in Southport history.
The Potters have two children. Is there any pressure on the kids to go into fishing? Royce laughs and says no. But, he quickly adds, his son already loves to be on the water. He is, after all, a Potter.
Want to buy fresh seafood?
94 Yacht Basin Street, Southport, (910) 457-0101