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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - Fisheries History

Marine Fisheries

Historical Tidbits About the Oyster and River Herring Fisheries

Compiled by Cheryl Gilgo
Fish Eye News
Aug. 2008 Archive

From the N.C. Oyster Fishery Management Plan:

Evidence of King’s grants for oyster bottoms indicates that oyster cultivation has been practiced in North Carolina since colonial times.

According to historical records, North Carolina oystermen landed 170,000 bushels of oysters in 1880. Fishermen interviewed in the Pamlico Sound area reported heavy mortality and poor condition of oysters. The season ran from September through April, and oyster dredging had not yet been allowed on public bottom, though dredging was allowed on private gardens as early as 1855.

It is generally accepted that the landings in 1880 and the 382,000 and 367,000 bushels landed in 1887 and 1888, respectively, were landed primarily by hand harvest methods and from relatively shallow water. It was not until 1889 when, after depleting their own resources, fishermen from northern states entered North Carolina with dredges and efficient mechanical tongs and North Carolina's deep-water Pamlico Sound oyster resource was fully exploited.

A loophole in an 1887 law, which allowed dredging only in waters greater than eight feet deep in Pamlico and Roanoke sounds, pertained only to residents, while there were no restrictions to prevent out-of-state fishermen from dredging anywhere in North Carolina waters. A law prohibiting any harvesting by non-residents was passed and enforced in 1891.

In 1897 the dredging law was amended, allowing limited dredging, a longer dredging season, and more law enforcement. From 1897 to the present, landings reached their highest level in 1902 at 1,833,000 bushels and exceeded one million bushels only one other time on record (1,003,000 bushels in 1923). All of the early oyster landings were accomplished using hand methods and sail-powered oyster dredge boats.
    
From the N.C. River Herring Fishery Management Plan:

The river herring fishery has existed since colonial times along the Atlantic coast. But the fishery served largely for subsistence, rather than commercial.

River herring were among the first fish to be harvested commercially because their oily flesh allowed them to be salt-preserved, without ice or refrigeration. During the late colonial and antebellum periods, planters in the Edenton area developed major fisheries for spawning American shad and river herring in the Chowan and Albemarle Sound.

The Albemarle Sound remains the center of the North Carolina river herring fishery today. 

N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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