After 88 years, a historic enterprise in a North Carolina fishing village will be shuttered March 29.

Cooke USA will close its production fish offloading and packing operations on Mill Landing Road, Wanchese. The company confirmed that its primary processing plant, administrative offices and cold storage facility located in Suffolk, Va., will remain open and operating.

The company was purchased by Cooke Seafood USA in 2015, however, the Wanchese Company continued the family-owned operation after the sale.”

The family-owned enterprise was established in 1936 as a fish processing plant by W.R. Etheridge, a Wanchese fisherman from a centuries-old Outer Banks family. According to the company website, “In 1941, Malcolm Daniels married Etheridge’s daughter, Maude, and later joined the business of sorting, packing and shipping fresh seafood.” The business flourished and according to the website, “in 1946, Daniels was given charge of the company.”

It was 79 years later that the successful enterprise was acquired by Cooke Seafood USA. However, the Wanchese Fish Company continued as a family-owned business marking a full 88 years of tradition extending well outside of the closely-knit Wanchese community.

Now this historic enterprise will close and unfortunately for the Wanchese community, there will be a loss of jobs, estimated to be about 10. While the number might seem insignificant, the impact to the community is not. Downsizing one of the most iconic and historically significant businesses on the Outer Banks is an issue.

News of the impending closing, reported Feb. 14 by the Coastal Review, sent a shock through North Carolina fishing communities.

The Wanchese Marine Industrial Park grew around the original Wanchese Fish Co. docks, adding marina and recreational fishing dockage to the maritime businesses mix. Wanchese Marine Industrial Park photo.

According to Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson at Cooke’s Virginia offices, the Trawl and Supply retail store will remain open and continue to serve clients, and Shoreland Transport USA will continue to operate its route to the Outer Banks.”

"We will be providing support and services to our employees as part of our transition package.”

Butch Midgett, manager of Wanchese Fish Facility, says workers as well as the community are upset about the shutdown.

"Its difficult for all of us, but everybody understands,” says Midgett, who has headed up the operation for three years. Were all adjusting to the change.”

But according to Oriental, N.C., fisherman Keith Bruno, the closing of the Wanchese Fish Co. is just another example of a shrinking commercial fishing industry in North Carolina.

"Making a living fishing or buying and selling fish is more difficult every passing year. Overreaching regulations are taking opportunities away from our families on an almost daily basis,” says Bruno. Never before have I personally observed such a huge discrepancy of the numbers of fish and the health of a species described by a state run agency vs. what the commercial fishermen are seeing.”

According to Mr. Midgett, the changes have been transparent for the last few years.

"Fish populations have been moving north,” says Midgett. The weather here has been windy with water temperatures getting warmer.”

"But it isnt all about climate change – its been a perfect storm of bad weather, cheap fish prices, some important fish species moving north during certain times of the year, high fuel prices, an inlet and a channel that is still not trusted, and restrictive regulations,” according to Midgett.

Bruno believes this is not about one species.

Multiple species, gear types and areas are experienced a systematic elimination of a historical way of life. Common sense regulations are warranted and we all have an investment in a sustainable way forward but the commercial fishing community is experiencing all time low numbers with increasing pressure to bring less seafood to the dock,” says Bruno. Sometimes , even strong and determined people, just get tired of fighting every evening just for the opportunity to go to work the following morning.”

"They finally give up. The ones who are left – we work, we pray, and we fight for whats right. For ourselves, for our family, for our seafood loving communities and for our history.” 

The market size of the fishing industry in the United States experienced an overall decrease from 2013 to 2022. In 2022, the sectors market size amounted to 9.6 billion U.S. dollars, down from the previous years total of 10.91 billion U.S. dollars.

Cooke, a privately-owned company, headquartered in New Brunswick, Canada, is a family-owned, vertically integrated sea farming and wild fishery corporation” that ships its products to 65 countries, according to its website. It operates salmon farming operations in Atlantic Canada, Maine, Washington, Chile and Scotland.

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Maureen Donald is a freelance correspondent for National Fisherman.

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