Every September my wife and I visit the outer banks of North Carolina for a vacation. We spend a week sitting on the sandy shore, watching brown pelicans glide by, listening to the surf and generally forgetting our pressures. I read a bunch of beach books for boys, and my wife collects shells to add to last year’s batch that are still in the garage. Every so often she walks by and dusts me. Ah, sweet therapy.
This year, we had passive entertainment in the form of a small group of local commercial fishermen who decided that the spot in front of our beach house was ideal for dragnet fishing. Armed with a small, surf-resistant boat and about 300 yards of net, the fishermen cast a loop off the bank and waited for silly fish to wander in. Then they dragged it out with the help of a pickup truck and loaded their catch into tubs to sell to local fish markets.
The fishermen, led by an old guy named Wilbur (who with a slight costume change could have been a gnome) seemed a fairly happy group. Just three guys making a living on the luck of the nets. Wilbur had smartly added to his crew one guy that stood about 6’5″ and had the muscle to pull a hundred pounds of fish onto the pickup bed with ease.
One Thursday, they had a great haul. The number of spot and chub and sea bass flopping in the nets was amazing. Wilbur reckoned it was about 4,000 pounds of fish, and at 23 cents a pound, it would be a good day’s catch-if they could get it loaded. People gathered to gawk at the fish, and some of us, for no reason other than neighborliness, helped them “pick fish.”
There was a farmer from northeastern Pennsylvania, who was getting a little long in the tooth but still had that strength that came from working a barrel chest and broad back for years, turning the earth. He told me about his family farm. Said things weren’t like they used to be, what with all the laws, regulations and agribusiness-related monkey business that was hurting the family farm. I told him I was a lawyer, and after a few minutes’ internal debate, he decided it was OK to talk to me some more.
Seems he’d worked the family farm all his life and had made a decent living. But things weren’t the way they used to be, and he was afraid that his son wouldn’t succeed in carrying on the tradition. Said a lot of the family farms had been sold off in his area, but he just wasn’t ready to do that. He liked farming. His son liked farming. It was a family business, and he believed that with hard work, a man should be able to take care of his own and not have to sell everything just to break even.
He looked over at his wife, who had joined us pickin’ fish. She was a sturdy woman with an ease of motion that bespoke years of snapping peas and “putting up” jars of applesauce. Together, they moved with great dignity, knowing they were doing what God expected.
After a while, they moved on, figuring they had done their part to help. I stayed on, pickin’ fish and shooting the breeze with Wilbur. I asked him about his business. He said he sold fish at about two bits a pound to the fish retailers that then resell it at about $3.50 a pound; then he just laughed. “If you want about 20 bucks of fish-grab a handful. It ain’t nothin’.” I asked him if the business was regulated. Wilbur said, “Well, they got laws about what you can catch, and gettin’ a license and all, but that’s about it.” “Hey, Wilbur, what would you think about the government setting up a fund that all fishermen would pay into to feed the poor with fish? They might call it the ‘Universal Fish Fund.'”
He thought about that, then screwed his bearded face into a scowl. “I don’t make that much now, and it seems that charity should begin at home. It just doesn’t seem right to take money from me so that other folks who won’t do an honest day’s work get fish. Besides, I give to the church, and that should be good enough.”
“Well, you know, Wilbur, this seacoast is federal, and that means the fish are federal, so the government’s letting you make a living using its fish. Doesn’t that mean they’re entitled to say what you can do with some of them?”
“Now, that’s crazy,” said Wilbur. “These fish ain’t federal. God made ’em, and he lets them run around the ocean, and I’m the one that makes them worth money by hauling them out of the ocean. The government doesn’t pay for that, or do that. Besides, they get my income taxes. Whatta they want more for?”
“Okay,” I said. “I get your point. But how about if the government decided to raise money by auctioning off fishing rights? They might create a program for you to bid on the right to fish these banks. If you won the bid, you would be able to haul out fish between, say, here and Nag’s Head, without competition from other fishermen. What would you think of that?”
“I couldn’t do it,” he declared with a laugh. “The truck takes about $100 a month to run, and nets need upkeep and the boat and motor and all-it takes money! Now, on a regular day, I get about $500 worth of fish, but the profits gotta be divvied up amongst us all. I get about a hundred a day. That’s enough to take care of my family, but it doesn’t leave much for biddin’ in a government-style auction to fish.”
“But you’d get the right to fish the whole bank,” I protested. “You could expand your operation and get a bunch of crews working down here. You might get rich.” “That ain’t gonna happen,” he said flatly. “Even if I could afford to buy the rights, I couldn’t afford the trucks and the boats and pay to pull it off. Hell, what am I supposed to do, borrow the money from a bank? They don’t lend money to li’l’ ol’ fishermen like us. Besides, I still owe on the house.”
“I understand,” I said, and we dropped it. I went back to pickin’ fish and squatted down to load several more handfuls of spot into a tub to be dumped into the back of the pickup. I worked with Wilbur and his crew until it was getting close to sunset. The smell of the dead fish clung to my hands where the fins had made little bloody pinholes in my palms. Together, we finished putting the two-bits-a-pound bounty in the trucks, and Wilbur thanked me, chuckling about wanting to get home to tell them that some lawyer helped them make the load. I waved to my new fishing buddies and walked slowly back to our beach house. My wife immediately directed me to a hot shower to get the fish smell off.
Afterward, she looked at my hands and said I should put some lotion on them, but I declined with a mumble about honest work. Truth is, my hands ached from helping Wilbur, but pickin’ fish felt good, and I didn’t even have to fill out a form.