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Albacore No More?

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THE HOUSE THAT GROUPER BUILT: The front façade of Mott’s Channel Seafood on Wrightsville Beach’s Intracoastal Waterway welcomes customers inside. Photo by John Wolfe

Ask any Wrightsville Beach local from where they get their seafood. Assuming they didn’t pull it out of the ocean themselves, they’ll most likely give the same answer they’ve been giving for over 22 years: Motts Channel Seafood.

It’s a smallish, unassuming grey building with a brick skirt and a fading, teal-colored roof, situated on the waterfront on Harbor Island just before the drawbridge. Out front an old anchor rusts away on a bed of discarded oyster shells beneath a palmetto tree. The building could easily be mistaken for an old captain’s house, or possibly a souvenir shop, were it not for the giant neon outline of a fish bearing the slogan “Fresh Seafood.” A wooden bench rests against the building between the doors on the weathered front porch. Behind the building to the left is a dock where customers can tie off their boats while purchasing dinner.

Inside the air conditioner runs full blast, which, when combined with the ice piled underneath the fish, combats the muggy Carolina summer blazing just past the door. The air carries that unmistakable briny pungency of fresh seafood, along with a hint of Old Bay seasoning and fresh vegetables. Next to the cash register are piles of shrimp, sorted by size. Further down the counter, by the frozen bait freezer, filets of tuna, swordfish, and mahi mahi ice down next to whole grouper and flounder. On the opposite wall, beside the T-shirts and underneath the taxidermied marlin, hangs an overflowing spice rack that looks like it carries every conceivable type of seafood seasoning in the entire world.

Currently there are 83 fish houses like Motts Channel scattered about the North Carolina coast, packing locally caught fish and shellfish for wholesale distribution. But there used to be even more. A recent report, funded by North Carolina Sea Grant and co-authored by Barbara Garrity-Blake and Barry Nash, found that since 2000 North Carolina has lost 36 percent of its fish houses. It’s an even more surprising figure when one considers that 67 percent of the fish houses still in business reported the demand for local seafood has increased.

“What remains unknown is if a one-third reduction in the state’s seafood-packing capacity represents a stabilization of the industry or a loss of critical production at a time when the demand for local seafood is growing stronger,” Nash says. “Research is now underway to address this question.”

According to the report, common reasons for fish-house closures included an increase in imported seafood, which caused market prices to fall, stricter regulations and quotas on high-volume fisheries and a lack of available labor. Conversely, the fish houses still operating claim that a stronger demand for local seafood, as well as branding incentives and property-tax breaks for waterfront fish houses, were factors that assisted in keeping their doors open.

Gene Long, the current owner of Motts Channel, has been retailing seafood on this property since 1989. He began by selling shrimp from a cooler on his boat while the building was being finished; he moved into the store in the spring of 1990. At first he says he was reluctant to start the business.

“Captain Roberts [the former owner of the property and lifelong friend of Long’s] was the one who talked me into it,” he says. “He said if the Hieronymus brothers [the original owners of Hieronymus Seafood restaurant on Market Street] could do it, coming from Raleigh and, in his words, ‘not knowing a croaker from an alligator,’ then I could do it.”

Long, who turns 62 in November, began fishing these waters as a boy. He got his commercial fishing license “sometime in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s” when the state first started requiring them, and still actively fishes for grouper. During the warmer months, he claims about 95 percent of the seafood sold in Motts Channel is caught locally on the East Coast. All of the products sold in the store are held to the same high standards that have kept Motts Channel in business. Long says, “What I always tell my staff is don’t put anything in the store that you wouldn’t want on your plate.”

One way he’s noticed the seafood industry change over the years has been a gradual departure from the former Southern staple of fried fish. “There’s been a shift away from fried anything,” he says. “People want healthy options. If you cook it in your oven or on the grill or in your microwave, that’s the healthiest way to eat it.”

Long also has noticed folks declining flounder and croaker, which are typically served fried, toward more upscale, higher cost fish—what he refers to as “white tablecloth” seafood. Motts often supplies swordfish and mahi-mahi to local restaurants.

The biggest factor that has changed the seafood industry is (not surprisingly) the rising cost of gasoline. Long remembers paying $1.25 a gallon at the beginning of his career. Now, it’s more like $3.75.

Long claims the property taxes he was paying on the store were also a major inhibiting factor, a complaint common in the findings of the Sea Grant report, but he says the cap on the property tax charged to waterfront working businesses has helped. Motts Channel is surrounded on both sides by gargantuan marine warehouses and storage facilities, and Long was being charged the same property tax that they were, even though they had much higher revenue. But, he says, “[The tax break] wasn’t handed to us. We had to fight for it.”

Standing on the dock behind Motts Channel, I can easily see why he did. The dock gives a stunning view of vibrant green sawgrass, growing above the tea-colored water that flows through the salt marsh. The sky above is a deep brilliant blue, and one can discern purple-rain squalls approaching from the distance. To the right, past the Marine Warehouse boatyard and the docks of Wrightsville Beach Yacht Club, the channel running behind Motts dumps into the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s not difficult to imagine a condominium development here, or another marina—something with much higher revenue potential than a humble seafood market.

“The real estate is too valuable to justify a fish house,” he admits. Long has received several offers to purchase his property, but none of them have been high enough to persuade him to sell. “I’d like to see my son or my daughter or both of them have a chance to run the business,” he says.

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