Turning Crab Pots Into Trees News Story From WCTI-TV 12, December 2009
Story From the Raleigh NEWS & OBSERVER
December 12, 2009
Mary Smith puts lights on a Christmas tree made of the wire-mesh material once used to make crab pots. Crab pots are no longer selling, but crab-pot trees are.
BY JOSH SHAFFER - STAFF WRITER
DAVIS -- In this tiny fishing village, where generations caught crabs inside wire-mesh traps, you can't make a nickel on the tasty crustaceans anymore, not with cheap seafood from Malaysia flooding the North Carolina coast.
So a few years back, Neal "Nicky" Harvey cut up some of the crab pot wire lying around his shop and built a small Christmas tree. Then another. Then a dozen. Then a thousand. Now this Christmas, Fisherman Creations will send out several thousand crab-pot trees from Raleigh to New York, from Smithfield to Texas.
It took the ingenuity of an old-time crab-pot maker to transform a sheet of green mesh, a material
that looks a good bit like chicken wire, into a piece of holiday charm. At 66, Harvey has seen his
fishing net business dry up, watched crab-pot demand fall from 3,000 to 300 a year.
With these trees, Fisherman Creations can export relics of a fading Down East culture.
"You'd be surprised how many people call up and ask how to catch a crab with a crab pot tree," Harvey said, cutting mesh inside his shop. "We still eat bear and stuff down here. Tell him what you've got in your crock pot, Mary."
Mary Smith looked up from a crab pot tree she was stringing with lights. "Some part of a deer," she said. "Don't know what part."
Out of all the blue crabs harvested in North Carolina, 95 percent meet their end in a crab pot. Last year, fishermen pulled roughly 33 million pounds from coastal waters, down 10 million from 2003, and down nearly 30 million from 1998.
Harvey remembers when crab-picking houses stood all along Core Sound. Now there's a handful, he said, and nobody wants to work those jobs, which tend to leave your fingers ripped with cuts and your hand twisted into a claw.
It's not just crabs. Geraldine Gaskill watched fishermen at Cedar Island pull in buckets of boatloads of scallops last season only to go begging at the restaurants in Morehead City and Beaufort. "They can get it cheaper off the Sysco truck," she said. Now Gaskill works at Davis Shore Provisions, a general store in Davis, where 120 locals sell shell necklaces and decorative buoys on consignment.
The crab pot trees she sells - 250 so far this year - all come from Harvey's original shop in Christmas tree form, from 18 inches to 8 feet tall, all pre-wrapped with lights. They're tough enough to withstand Down East winds and won't rust even in salt water, but nobody wants them for fishing.
Hard on the hands
To make a tree, it helps to have hands that are practiced at twisting strands of metal. Harvey made crab traps for decades, but his forearms are striped with wire cuts. Crab pots are harder because there's so much more twisting, but the workers at his shop still wear duct tape over their fingers and thumbs for protection.
"You can't get people to do work anymore that hurts their hands a little bit," he said.
"You mean some people have feeling in their hands?" asked Smith, still wiring a tree.
For two or three months a year, Fisherman Creations creates jobs for as many as 15 people. Inside, those workers cutting wires and stringing lights know the sting of jobs sent abroad.
"Once upon a time, I had a dependable job in a sewing factory, with benefits," Smith said. "I burnt through my 401(k) already. After next week, there's nothing until people start renting and I get to start cleaning houses at the beach again."
Money from the sales of a Core Sound tree benefits the N.C. Watermen United, a group that represents both commercial and recreational fishermen. This year, there's been more dollars to go around.
Harvey started small, turning out trees mostly for locals who spotted them in his shop window. Then he got a patent several years ago, and this year, he turned over the rights to make, sell and market the trees to Don Acree, an investor who created Fisherman Creations. Acree helped the tree sales go national, showing them at craft conventions, putting out lengthy press releases. This year, he said, sales rose by 50 percent.
But the work all happens in Davis, in the little white shop where Harvey once turned out crab pots - in shouting distance of the choppy Down East waters and the beautiful, delectable creatures that swim below.
Fisherman Creations Core Sound "Crab
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