Face to Face

BY Ashley Johnson

The whiff of fish is the first clue that Wrightsville’s Motts Channel Seafood is an authentic fish house. The wares are fresh unloaded from boats that pull right up to the dock out back. Boats like the Orion which could have just brought in the grouper or hogfish about to be iced in the display.

Fishermen are notorious for telling tall tales. But when the crewmembers of the Orion relate their encounters with angry storms and hungry sharks and their passion for their work there is no need to exaggerate.

The Orion is a 32-foot BHM a Down-East lobster boat trustworthy at sea but just rough enough around the edges to convey the classic feel of a commercial boat suspended in time. It’s owned by Albie Solano a member of a small group of commercial spearfishermen in North Carolina. These intrepid adventurers make their living hunting their prey face-to-face underwater.

“Spearfishing is risky and really difficult. You need a certain set of skills that it takes a long time to accumulate ” Solano says.

The fish are hunted as far as 160 feet below the surface up to 70 miles offshore using custom wooden enclosed-track spearguns that are about 55-60 inches long. There is a line attached to the spear shaft so the diver can pull in the catch.

The fishermen don wetsuits and go below the surface with only SCUBA gear speargun and a diving computer that looks like a watch but provides helpful information like how much time can be safely spent underwater.

The hunters have to be within about 12 feet of their prey to take the shot. They aim for the back of the fish’s head called a stone shot. Get it right and the fish will be dead on impact. If not it turns into a tug of war with the fish.

Being below the surface seeking the prey in its own habitat makes the job of fishing a bit more personal. The fishermen strive to bring in every fish they shoot even if that means following an injured fish until it “holes up” in a rock. They do not take it lightly if a fish dies in vain.

“I love the feeling of getting good fish and taking really good care of them ” Solano says.

Spearfishermen see the fish before they kill it. Instead of hoping to get the target fish after throwing a net in the water or dropping a line they can make sure it’s the right fish and of appropriate size before spearing it. In other words there is no bycatch.

“I take a lot of pride in my seafood product and getting it in the cleanest way ” Solano says.

Like so many vessels Orion has a story. In a previous life she was a lobster boat in Maine. Then in Bedford Massachusetts she became a tugboat. That was where Solano found her in 2011 and gave Orion yet another season as a commercial spearfishing boat in North Carolina.

At the time Solano was running someone else’s Viking a premier sport fisherman. Comparing the BHM to a Viking is like observing an ox beside a bull. The Viking fiercely slices through the water. The Orion is the ox: slow strong and focused. It only travels at eight knots and when Solano takes it out he lives at sea on board for two to five days.

Solano is an ox type of guy. He’s in his 30s and just married yet he is salty enough to be a fisherman from a much earlier time. He and Orion are one.

The New Jersey native has been fishing most of his life and been involved in many aspects of the industry. Solano received a degree in natural resource management and fishery science from Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He worked in the research field and charter fished through college.

It was in New Jersey where the water is cold and the seasons short that he first started fishing under the water beginning recreational diving and spearfishing by swimming offshore to the Shrewsbury Rocks. This is where his obsession with diving was born. He has the map tattooed on his arm.

“The more I did it and improved at it I realized I could make a living doing it ” Solano says.

He bought Orion had it shipped to North Carolina and began to transform it into an efficient commercial spearfishing vessel. When he moved to Wilmington he bought a state permit that allowed him to sell fish like African pompano cobia and sheepshead.

“I didn’t know much about spearfishing here at first ” he says. “I was more into free diving then. Even to this day I like it better but commercially I realized to make a living doing it you have to strap on a tank.”

He also realized he’d have to get a federal permit called a South Atlantic Snapper-Grouper Unlimited to turn a profit. These fish are a spearfisherman’s bread and butter but a finite number of the permits exist and they are being retired at a quick rate. A fisherman must buy a permit that already exists and it can run up to $70 000.

This job is a lifestyle eliciting intense dedication. It calls for diligence and demands a never-ending eagerness to learn. Fishermen work even when they’re not at sea. Solano’s “off days” consist of maintaining the boat or tackle watching the weather and tides and studying chlorophyll levels to determine the visibility of the water. Any spare time is spent telling fish tales and bending the ear of other fishermen in an attempt to decipher what’s biting that day.

“I’ll almost always have the boat ready to go ” Solano says.

The Orion leaves at night because the fishing ground might be 75 miles away which with her speed could mean a seven-hour boat ride. Solano usually brings one other diver with him. One takes a shift at the wheel while the other sleeps. By morning light they will be anchored up and diving.

“Although 60 or 70 miles may not seem so far away out on the ocean it’s just us the freighters and the stars ” says Jonathan Kent one of the regular diving crew.

One dives while the other stays on board and follows the bubbles surfacing from the man below. It’s important for the boat to be near when the diver comes up with a heavy stringer of fish often with a couple of sharks tailing him. The men say it’s easier than it seems to lose a person in the water especially in strong currents and choppy seas.

After they each do a dive they fill the empty tanks and go again. Time is measured in dives usually five to eight per diver a day each lasting about 20-25 minutes in anywhere from 75 to 160 feet of water.

The deeper the water the shorter the time hunting fish. At 160 feet 15 minutes of a 20-minute dive may be spent floating at 40 feet to prevent decompression sickness — the bends — that occurs from a rapid change in pressure.

“There are a lot of elements out of our control ” Kent says. “The most important thing we can do is to stay calm and make sure the things that are under our control are taken care of.”

The business doesn’t come without competition.

“When I initially started I got a lot of heat from the other (hook-and-line) guys ” he says. “I made sure I was nice to everyone and didn’t cause problems and now six years later I am friends with those guys.”

Solano shares information from being underwater. If a boat gets an anchor stuck in the rocks he will often dive down to retrieve it.

Solano runs one of very few commercial spearfishing boats in North Carolina but is not the first to run a commercial spearfishing operation locally. Randy Batts of Topsail Island has been commercial spearfishing since 1965.

“Diving is my passion ” Batts says. “I’m 65 years old and I still get just as excited about it.”

A lot has changed in the course of his career. One notable and not-so-welcome difference: there are more big sharks where he dives.

“I definitely see more great white sharks than I’ve ever seen ” he says.

Some years have gone by without encountering a single one but last summer he saw three.

Divers have a healthy awareness of the danger a shark presents. After a successful shot they become a neoprene-covered creature pulling bloody fish — shark food — behind them.

Batts says his scariest moment came when he had a drawn-out encounter with a great white five years ago.

“I went down with a tank about half full to finish a day of diving. I shot three fish and as I came back up slowly to decompress I saw this huge white shark circling ” he says.

Batts instantly dropped his catch — a hard thing for a fisherman to do in any scenario except one like this.

“Instantly that white shark was all over me she didn’t even care about the fish ” Batts says. “We stayed suspended in the water 20 feet from the surface for eight to 10 minutes.”

The shark was so close he could have easily poked her with his speargun but it wouldn’t have fazed the massive creature. Batts didn’t head for the surface for fear the shark would charge.

“I knew I was at that creature’s mercy and there was nothing I could do about it ” he says.

Finally the boat following his bubbles appeared overhead and spooked the shark.

For a long time he looked for that shark every time he descended on a dive. But Batts says simply you can’t let fear control your life.

Batts began spearfishing before a permit was required. The strict regulations now enforced on the commercial fishing industry are the biggest change he has seen in his 50-plus years.

If fishing were a religion regulations would be the bound text. Fishermen must stay up to date on the ever-changing rules and abide by them strictly which can be difficult.

“There are different state and federal regulations and they don’t always coincide ” Solano says “so we have to go by two different sets of rules.”

While the regulations can seem onerous at times everyone wants the same thing: to protect a resource that benefits all.

“I think the condition of the fishery is good right now thanks to the regulations ” says Batts though he does note a decline specifically in the red grouper population.

Solano and Batts say there is sometimes a misconception that those who make a living from marine resources see fish as nothing but dollar signs.

“I am not in the business of fishing to make my money and get out ” Solano says. “I want to see fish populations healthy and plentiful for a long time to come.”

Another misconception is that spearfishermen wipe out whole populations of fish in one area. In fishing lingo these are called “spots ” places where fish congregate usually involving some sort of structure like a shipwreck coral bed or rocky ledge where they can find shelter.

Solano and Batts say they make efforts to preserve the fish populations on these spots.

“When I dive in an area I try not to go back to it for four or five months and I usually only visit a spot once a year so as not to overfish one bottom ” Solano says. “I always leave fish so it can easily replenish.”

Finding good spots depends on many things but sonar technology aids in the process. Equipment has evolved leaps and bounds since Batts started.

“We didn’t have all this fancy fish-finding stuff and even the dive gear has advanced a whole lot ” he says.

Even with all the advantages the younger guys have Batts doesn’t mind the new generation moving into the area and in fact he has a respect for them.

“Spearfishing is one of the most dangerous things I can think of anybody doing ” he says. “I like to go out with the younger guys and teach them things.”

It’s this same kind of passion that keeps Solano diving through the winter when grouper season is closed. Then he hunts difficult species like lionfish which can cause excruciating pain if they sting you.

Solano explains the difficulty of diving in the winter with a metaphor: “It’s like your boss telling you that you are going to work 10 times harder in conditions that are going to be five times more dangerous and you’ll make less money doing it.”

There are easier ways to make a living and safer more practical ways to get an adrenaline rush. Yet the divers keep going out putting themselves at the mercy of many elements time and again.

“It’s a wild intrinsic beauty ” Kent says. “It’s just awesome to see a fish in its natural habitat.”