By Russ Lay on January 18, 2013
We have long been baffled as to why Dare County stands alone in the entire state, and for that matter most of the Eastern Seaboard, in placing obstacles in the way of open-air seafood markets and roadside stands.
For a long time, the county hid behind the power of Dare County’s Health Department. The Health Department constantly cited concerns over the sale of spoiled or contaminated fish from roadside markets.
The Health Department held firm when questioned by organized groups such as Coastal Harvesters and from this newspaper, which demonstrated such concerns were not borne out by evidence easily obtained from the experience of other counties and states.
Former Commissioner Mike Johnson even brought David Green, director of N.C. State University’s Seafood Laboratory, to address the Board of Commissioners. Green said that Dare County’s health concerns were easily handled by simple regulations and were not really valid.
He even offered the Seafood Laboratory’s help to Dare County to craft a workable solution.
North Carolina Sea Grant, staffed by researchers from North Carolina’s public and private colleges and funded in part by the federal government, also supports the sale of seafood at open-air markets.
Virginia, through Virginia Polytechnic Institute, goes as far as to encourage commercial fishermen to sell their product at open-air markets and offers training and HACCP (a set of FDA rules designed to keep seafood at safe temperatures from the time it is caught to the time it is sold) certification.
Still, Dare County chose to continue its ban.
In early 2012, the county’s Health Department finally relaxed some of its prohibitions, approving many species for sale.
But because of fears of histamine toxicity, a form of food poisoning associated with some species, Dare County excluded the sale of fish among the most popular and profitable, including Spanish mackerel, bluefish, mahi-mahi and wahoo.
In our phone discussions with David Green and Virginia Tech, those concerns were largely dismissed. The key to avoiding histamine toxicity is keeping fish at 41 degrees or lower from the time they are caught to the time they are sold.
Commercial fishermen must ice these fish when caught. When they sell them to retailers or wholesalers, they are inspected for temperature. Once purchased, every seller or reseller along the chain must maintain the 41-degree maximum temperature.
As Green pointed out, most recreational fishermen do not follow such strict guidelines. Indeed, if you’ve ever been on a charter and brought home a large catch of wahoo or mahi, you are aware the fish are not iced to such standards. After docking, many of us have the fish processed at places like Oregon Inlet and we then put them on ice and take them home in coolers.
To my knowledge, no recreational fisherman has died or taken ill from a charter-boat catch.
Yet, Dare’s Health Department persists in erecting obstacles. In the case of Mark Rawl, the county has added yet another one — unclear and unwritten zoning regulations that allow the Board of Commissioners to set virtually any rules (or roadblocks) to the temporary sale of seafood they wish.
What was most surprising at the Dec. 3 commissioners meeting was the opposition of Republican Commissioner Jack Shea to even holding a public hearing.
Shea possesses a scientific background in pharmaceuticals and is familiar with histamine issues. But as a scientist, he should also be open to the opinions of scientists and researchers at N.C. State, Sea Grant and Virginia Tech.
And as Republicans, Shea, Richard Johnson and Bob Woodard should be leading the charge to repeal regulations and obstacles to small business growth as those positions are almost a mantra of their political party. Much to his credit, Woodard stopped the steamroller by calling for Tuesday’s public hearing.
The recusal in the vote by commissioners Max Dutton, who works for Harris-Teeter, and Allen Burrus, who owns a small grocery store, was more telling, as was the opposition of retail stores claiming such a low-cost operation represents unfair competition.
Operations such as the one proposed by Rawl, even if several were to be permitted, are not likely to rob significant sales from stores.
Following that logic, the Voice should be opposed to advertising on rolling trucks, which has been banned for now in Nags Head, or banners trailing off airplanes since such advertising represents a small investment of time and money compared to what it takes to produce this news site every day.
While the issue of “unfair competition” never surfaced at the Board of Health meetings, it was always a concern of this writer that such pressure was being exerted from retail owners through back channels.
The Rawl application brought this opposition out into the open as several retail and wholesale establishments submitted letters of opposition, and two commissioners tied to the retail business recused themselves from voting on a public hearing.
Small business should recognize that not only is competition good for all concerned, getting in bed with government to shut down competition is a dangerous game to be playing.
Small business constantly complains about the cost of complying with regulations. Yet when their self-interests are in play, they often seek government regulation to “protect” them.
The cat is now out of the bag, and it is apparent Dare’s opposition to the sale of seafood is not based on science or public health concerns.
Follow the money and you will find your answer.
And shame on any Republican who enables this anti-business, anti-competitive atmosphere to continue.