Catching Up with Dewey: Commercial Fisherman, Advocate, Educator

 In Coastal Life, OBX Community

Dewey Hemilright once saved a tiny kitten from the ferocious jaws of a shark. At least that’s the story he tells a group of wide-eyed schoolchildren. 

As Hemilright, a commercial fisherman, shoved off from Wanchese in his 42-foot boat Tar Baby, a stowaway was aboard. It wasn’t until the boat was miles out to sea that a curious kitten appeared. Hemilright attempted to capture it but the frisky kitty scampered away, leaping into the deep blue sea. Although Hemilright admits to not being a “cat person,” he wasn’t about to let the creature forfeit all nine of its lives at once. He grabbed a dip net, scooped up the kitten and deposited it safe and sound on deck. And the shark? “I just throw that in for dramatic effect,” Hemilright says with a mischievous grin. “But you should see the looks on the children’s faces.”  

Hemilright shares his knowledge with local schoolchildren through the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s outreach program. Photo Sarah Hallas

Hemilright has visited classrooms in 10 states as a volunteer with Provider Pals, a non-profit educational outreach program that connects grade school students with natural resource providers. A longline fisherman, Hemilright explains the technique of catching fish using a long mainline with branch lines spaced at intervals connected to baited circle hooks. He shares photos of Tar Baby and presents a lesson on how seafood winds up on their dinner plates. 

Locally, Hemilright volunteers with the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s outreach program, meeting with Dare County schoolchildren. It’s show-and-tell as shark jaws, a swordfish bill, fish hooks, and photos depicting a day in the life of a commercial fisherman are passed around for inspection. And they’re all ears when talk turns to harrowing encounters with sharks.

Thirty-five years ago, Hemilright was in his teens and working at a Wanchese fish house. He soaked up the melodrama as the fishermen returned to the docks with catches of tuna, swordfish, Mahi, Spanish mackerel, or shrimp, depending on the season. Unloading and packing fish, he listened to the swashbuckling tales of life on the high seas and “the one that got away.” He imagined experiencing such adventures himself one day. 

At the age of 21, Hemilright finally got his chance. Venturing miles offshore, the ocean roiled. As did his stomach. “I was seasick the whole time,” he says. “I lost about 15 pounds those first few times out.” But catching swordfish was exhilarating and somewhat made up for the seasickness. From then on, he was, shall we say, “hooked.” All these years later, he still revels in the thrill of reeling in a swordfish. “They put up a good fight.” 

Heading out in the early morning darkness witnessing the deep violet sky meld into shades of pink, orange, and yellow takes some of the sting out of the early wake-up call. And just as no two sunrises are alike, no two days of fishing are alike. “That’s part of the attraction,” Hemilright says. Navigating anywhere from Cape Lookout, NC, to Norfolk Canyon, VA, he likes being his own boss. And he enjoys the peacefulness. “I can hear myself think.” At night, golden moonbeams ripple across the dark expanse of water. What does he hope for? “A good catch. Calm seas. Sometimes my brother, Chad, comes along and that’s good.” 

Hemilright heads out on the Tar Baby. Photo Chuck & Charlie/Busch

But it’s not always picturesque skies and frolicking dolphins. The weather can be unpredictable and the open sea can be intimidating. Problems can arise with the boat, the motor, the electronics, or the tackle. There is pressure to get a good catch because without a catch, there’s no paycheck. On one overnight trip, as Hemilright caught some shut-eye in the gently rocking Tar Baby, another boat collided into his. The jolt disabled his navigation system. Fortunately, he was able to radio other fishermen in the vicinity and they provided location coordinates, allowing him to return safely to port.  

Fishing is a highly regulated and complicated industry, and Hemilright brims with emotion as he shares his opinion about the often-cumbersome regulations. One way he deals with the frustration is by being an active participant in the process. He analyzes reports and findings and has become a respected spokesperson regarding fisheries policymaking and research. He welcomes a spirited debate. He currently serves as one of three voting delegates from North Carolina on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, is assigned to six Council advisory committees, and functions as South Atlantic Council liaison. He attends meetings between 30 and 60 days a year, traveling from New York to Florida. 

Hemilright has assisted research scientists by taking them out on Tar Baby to collect data on such topics as migratory and breeding behavior of certain fish species. Researchers have joined him on daily fishing trips to record information about the catch, to tag fish, and to study mortality rates. These encounters allow non-fishermen the opportunity to witness first-hand the burdensome impact of certain regulations. 

One cooperative research grant with which Hemilright was involved benefited Dare County in an unexpected way. For the study, he and two other fishermen caught a large amount of blueline tilefish. Because they received payment through the grant, the fish could not be sold. Hemilright dreaded the thought of the fish going to waste. Word got out and Etheridge Seafood Company and O’Neal’s Seafood Harvest stepped in to process, package, and freeze the fish, resulting in 750 pounds of fish fillets. In an extraordinary act of benevolence, the fish were donated to an extremely grateful Beach Food Pantry. And the good news continues as Hemilright humbly relates how he cooked 130 pounds. of the fillets, creating 225 meals for Bethany’s Table, a volunteer outreach service led by Bethany United Methodist Church in Wanchese. 

Dewey Hemilright brings a waterman’s world to children of all ages. He often incorporates hands-on activities and captivating tales into his lessons to engage his audience. Photo Sarah Hallas

Hemilright admits that times are tough in the commercial fishing industry. Fishing is hard work, expensive, and even dangerous. “It’s not a 9 to 5 job.” Still, there are those who are drawn to this time-honored livelihood. Hemilright says he is committed to doing what he can to help fishing remain a viable way to earn a living. He is a voice for fishermen, an ombudsman of sorts. “I’m a ‘we’ person, not an ‘I’ person,” he says. 

For the past four years, Hemilright has spent six weeks in Alaska, fishing for sockeye salmon in the crystal-clear waters of Bristol Bay. Along with spectacular scenery (including Beluga whales), the average temperature is 60 degrees and there is 22 hours of daylight. “It allows me to experience another dimension of America’s commercial fishing industry.” Other fishing expeditions have taken him to Brazil and Costa Rica. 

But no matter how far Hemilright wanders, he is happy to return to the Outer Banks, where he was born and raised. Where fellow fishermen offer unconditional support, where members of the community are eager to lend a helping hand. A place with unique beauty and easy access to the ocean and Gulf Stream. Where the most rewarding part of his job is providing fresh, sustainably-caught seafood to the Outer Banks and beyond. 

It is for those reasons, when asked to choose one word to describe himself, Hemilright needn’t cast around for an answer. 

“Appreciative,” he says. ♦

Kimberly Armstrong

Kimberly Armstrong’s artistic talents are limited to drawing conclusions. However, she can perform a rollicking rendition of “The Skater’s Waltz” on the piano.

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