Gloucester vs. Outer BanksGloucester, Mass. and North Carolina’s Outer Banks are more than 500 miles apart as the crow flies, and the New England fishermen who venture south to compete with their Banker counterparts for lucrative bluefin tuna find a few glaring cultural differences. Unlike Gloucester, population 29,393, there’s no mariner statue looking out mournfully to sea in the center of Wanchese, the out-of-the-way village of 1,642 at the southernmost end of Roanoke Island that serves as a hub of the area’s seafood industry. Instead of just the rods-and-reels that New Englanders favor, the North Carolinians often use long fishing poles called greensticks, with multiple lines and hooks. And there’s the sound of how they talk. Instead of the stretched-out “ah” sound that the Kennedy brothers made famous, Bankers traditionally speak in an Irish-inflected lilt, which renders high as ‘hoi’ and tide as ‘toid.’ And it’s a safe guess that hardly anybody roots for the Red Sox or the Celtics. It’s not easy to get used to.
All the same, though, these two hotbeds of bluefin tuna fishing also have a lot of things in common. Both Gloucester and the Outer Banks are places with a rich, colorful history and a venerable maritime tradition, where fishing long has been—and continues to be—a vital industry to the economy.
Both places date back to colonial times. Gloucester was founded in the early 1600s, when the English discovered there were abundant stocks of Atlantic cod offshore. In the centuries that followed, the original settlers were followed by waves of immigrants from Italy and Portugal, all eager to earn a living from the rich array of aquatic life—cod, haddock, redfish, and flounder—that lived in the waters of the Georges Bank, a shallow, sediment-covered undersea plateau.
The Outer Banks’ maritime history, in comparison, dates back to the late 1600s—about a century after a settlement established by John White, the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke, mysteriously vanished without a trace. It wasn't fishermen who initially were attracted to the Outer Banks, but rather pirates and smugglers, who liked the area’s inlets and coves as hiding places. After the British Royal Navy eventually vanquished the pirates, the more law-abiding settlers who followed turned to fishing as a means of subsistence. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that larger-scale commercial fishing began to develop, thanks to the building of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, which made it easier for fishermen to send their product north.
As with Gloucester, a visitor to Wanchese couldn't help but notice the village’s traditional economic mainstay. Wanchese’s harbor is filled with seagoing fishing vessels of various vintages, and the backyards of century-old wooden houses often contain boats in differing states of repair. And like Gloucester, Wanchese’s fishermen often can trace their lineage back through several generations of anglers—though some have switched from commercial to sport fishing, or else work as boat builders.
Despite the village’s scant size, it has become an important fishing industry hub. Boats, trawlers, and even huge vessels use the harbor as a base, harvesting seafood from North Carolina’s coastal and inland waterways, and all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Along the southeastern edge of the village, the 53-acre state-owned Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park provides a place to process the catch and maintain the boats. According to a 2011 study, it pumps about $38 million into the economy of Dare County annually.
But there is a difference in scale. Gloucester has a much bigger catch than the Outer Banks, landing about 83 million pounds of fish alone in 2012, compared to Wanchese’s 17 million pounds. But like New England, the Outer Banks has struggled with the problem of overfishing—particularly when it comes to summer and southern flounder, two species found offshore and in the state’s waterways that are mainstays for both commercial and recreational fishermen.
Outer Banks fishermen didn’t start catching bluefin tuna in earnest until the mid-1990s. Back then, the giant fish were mostly found off Cape Hatteras, feeding in shallow water, usually less than 120 feet deep. That made them relatively easy prey for anglers, as local fisherman Charles Perry explained in a 2014 article in a fishing publication. By the late 1990s, the bluefin were more likely to be found in the waters off Morehead City, but over the last two or three winters, Perry said that he’d gotten the most bites off Oregon Inlet. In contrast to the waters off New England, where bluefin are caught from June to October, the season in the Outer Banks is in the wintertime, from December to April.