WANCHESE — An 11th-generation Outer Banks fisherman, Jamie Wescott took a gamble recently in rough weather and worked until midnight netting 500 pounds of croaker. He hit the fish market the next morning, and workers sorted his paltry catch.
Even the pelicans under the fish conveyor belt were getting slim pickings.
On a better day, he would have caught closer to 3,000 pounds.
"It has not been really good," he said.
Tall, lean and weathered like many of his watermen ancestors, Wescott, 37, says he is up against more than bad weather these days when it comes to commercial fishing.
In 2011, North Carolina fishermen harvested 29.7 million pounds of finfish compared with 110.9 million pounds a decade earlier - down from the peak of 388.6 million pounds in 1981, according to state records.
The number of commercial fishing licenses issued remained steady at just over 9,000 in 2011, but the number of fishermen actually using them fell to 3,700 from 5,260 in 2002 and a peak of 7,198 in 1996.
Wescott says he doubts his 3-year-old son, who loves going on the boat and to the fish house, will be able to make a living on the water.
"I don't think the industry will be here," he said.
Fuel prices, imported seafood, government regulations and shoaling at Oregon Inlet have left many commercial fishermen on the Outer Banks in a upstream battle to survive, said John Hadley, the socioeconomics program manager for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
To combat their struggles, they have forged alliances, looked at technological innovations and explored other places to market their catch.
A group known as Outer Banks Catch and agencies such as North Carolina Sea Grant are searching for solutions.
Outer Banks Catch is a pool of fishermen, fish markets, restaurants and residents organized in 2010 to promote the local seafood industry. Federally and state-funded and based at North Carolina State University, Sea Grant researches the fisheries industry on such issues as water quality and coastal hazards.
Jutting into the center coastline of the Atlantic Ocean close to the jet stream, North Carolina waters get both northern and southern fish species. The state's wide variety of seafood is in high demand. Fish markets typically pack fresh fish in ice and ship them to markets up the eastern seaboard. But fresh seafood sold only in season gluts the market, and prices drop.
"We have to change the business model," said Barry Nash, a seafood technology and marketing specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant.
One promising idea is to establish a network of blast freezers, units that would rapidly chill seafood and preserve its freshness so it could be sold out of season at a good price, he said.
Another idea is to market better locally and to restaurants in cities closer to home, such as Raleigh and in Hampton Roads, Nash said.
While about 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, nearly half the seafood served in Outer Banks restaurants is local, said Jason Gray, director of research and innovation for the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center. Gray attributed the popularity of local fish to marketing efforts.
Basnight's Lone Cedar Cafe in Nags Head lists local watermen who catch its fish on the restaurant's menu.
"Given a choice, people will pay more for local seafood," Gray said.
For local fishermen, it's also about choice, with escalating fuel prices.
Wescott spends about $500 a fishing trip in fuel compared with $150 a few years ago. When fuel prices were lower, he said, he would gamble on fishing in bad weather. Now if the weather is iffy, he may not risk a wasted trip.
"Now you have to really watch it," he said.
Government quotas further restrict local fishermen. Harvesting limits are set on many of the finfish and shellfish caught in local waters to preserve their numbers. In addition, certain areas are off-limits, and some types of fishing gear are prohibited or limited.
"Without the fish, we don't have a fishery," Hadley said.
A federal rule requires gill net fishermen in the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds to report it every time they catch a sea turtle, said Mike Johnson, a former Dare County commissioner and member of Outer Banks Catch. After 20 sea turtle catches, officials shut down the fishing season in that area. There are no such restrictions in a lot of foreign markets, he said.
The hazard of passing through Oregon Inlet has become a bigger fishing problem in recent years as government funding for dredging operations has dried up. The sand-clogged inlet is the only short way to the Atlantic Ocean for Wanchese watermen.
Special funding related to Hurricane Sandy damages should come soon. Still, local groups and elected officials are lobbying to get a dependable annual dredging budget in place.
Wescott runs a charter boat service in the summer that also has to deal with the clogged inlet and fuel prices. Bad weather largely contributed to his recent meager croaker catch. By the time he paid two crewmen and bought fuel, his take was equally meager, he said.
"It doesn't add up," he said.