A North Carolina family fishes together, sells together and survives together, too

Many of today’s small family-owned businesses struggle to survive in the shadow of big-box stores and online giants. The commercial fishing industry is no exception. Faced with an onslaught of regulations, attacks from special interest groups and an ever-growing import market, family-owned fishing businesses face a unique set of obstacles.

Some are up to the challenge.

Founded by Wayne Dunbar in 1998, Paradise Shores Seafood in Merritt, N.C., is thriving in this hostile environment. The company is the epitome of a family-owned business that has grown into a successful operation handling a variety of fish, blue crabs, soft shell crabs, shrimp, oysters, and conchs.

“It’s a good life thanks to the good Lord, my special wife and our three sons,” says Wayne. “We are a group of people who work hard and love what we do.”

The Dunbars believe there is only one sure way to grow a business — hard work, and lots of it.

“Our business has grown, starting with one crab boat and one mullet boat, to four crab boats now and four fishing boats,” says Wayne. “The only way to survive in this business is to be willing to work many long hours a day and do whatever it takes.”

Two of the Dunbars’ three sons — Blake, 35, and Dylan, 28 — play key roles in the business. Blake, the eldest, went into the commercial fishing business full time right after high school and is the top producer for Paradise Shores Seafood. The middle son, Lucas, went to college and graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and works at Lockheed Martin.

The youngest of the Dunbar sons, Dylan, decided to return to work at Paradise Shores after graduating from college. He is responsible for managing the fish house, buying, selling and shipping the seafood out to the markets.

“I grew up with my father as a fisherman and have been on the boat since I could walk,” says Blake. “All I ever wanted to do was be a fisherman.”

Blake loved it from the very beginning and spends every possible minute on the water crabbing with his brother-in-law, Brandon Broughton.

“Blake always wanted to be out on the water,” says Wayne. “He bought his own mullet boat, a 26-foot Tremley, when he was 13.”

“It’s a blessing to be able to work with your family and to build a family business,” says Wayne. “My children were able to grow up working in the seafood business, and it kept us as a close family unit.”

The Dunbars readily admit there are challenges working so closely with family.

“Sometimes there are arguments, but we always talk things out and figure out ways to work it out for better results,” says Blake. “Your family is your worst critic, but that can make you or break you. You have to be able to let some things go and keep pushing on. We have all learned to respect each other in our individual roles.”

Blake is following in his father’s footsteps.

“I want my children to know where they came from and the value of hard work. I plan for them to work with me every summer just as I did,” says Blake.

“However, as they grow up, they need to make their own choices. We won’t sugarcoat how hard this life is, but if that’s what they choose, we will support them.”

It appears Blake’s oldest child, 7-year-old Drake, is on the same path as his dad, while Harper, 5, is still working on her career choice.

“I never told any of the boys that they needed to stay and work in the business. I always wanted them to make that decision for themselves,” says Wayne. “Our grandson, Drake, says he wants to be a fisherman like his daddy. Likewise, I also want him to make his own decision about his career choices in life.”

“Anyone who makes their living in our industry knows it is hard work. A person has to love it and be very dedicated.”

This dedication and love of family has spawned a multifaceted business that continues to branch out in several directions. Paradise Shores Seafood now offers fishing and duck hunting charters. With an eye to the future, the Dunbar family believes expansion is key for the business to thrive.

“Today you have to be versatile to make a living in this industry,” says Blake. “Crabbing and fishing may be my first choices, but you do what is needed to stay healthy and grow.”

The need to expand has resulted in successful wholesale and retail markets, including a bait business, soft crab retail operation as well as running a pound net to provide bait for the company’s extensive crabbing business.

The latest venture for the family is Paradise Shores Adventures, which offers hunting and fishing guide services on the nearby Neuse River and Pamlico Sound. With a combined 60 years of experience for Wayne and Blake, the father-son team has developed a thriving business that includes charters for a wide variety of local fish, as well as crab, shrimp and even bird watching.

This ever-expanding and ever-changing charter company helps keep the business growing, according to Wayne.

“In today’s climate, commercial fishing families need to do everything and anything they can to stay on the water,” says Blake. “We are constantly looking for ways to not simply make a paycheck, but also to educate the public about our industry. We have to let people know how important it is to preserve commercial fishing.”

No doubt this family recognizes the challenges of not simply surviving but thriving.

“We are well aware of the factions out there constantly trying to shut down the commercial fishing industry — it would be naive to ignore the threats to our business,” says Wayne. “Seeing imported seafood come into our country instead of allowing local fishermen to supply fresh seafood to the people of America, seeing pollution kill many of the sounds and rivers and seeing how our state’s regulations have created an extremely wasteful fishing industry is a constant struggle.”

Wayne, who sits on the board of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, is a strong advocate for such organizations.

“It’s necessary to have the support of organizations that fight every day to allow us to continue to fish and make a living,” says Wayne.

But with all these issues knocking on the door, the Dunbars are committed to preserving their way of life.

“People love to come to Pamlico County, see the commercial fishing boats and eat fresh seafood,” says Blake. “It’s a good feeling to be a part of providing good, fresh seafood for people.”

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Maureen Donald is a freelance correspondent for National Fisherman.

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