Eddie Willis began making a living by age thirteen–fishing, shrimping, clamming, crabbing, and scalloping. The Harkers Island native is a fourth generation fisherman, carrying on the traditions of his father, fisherman and boat builder Weldon ‘Peter’ Willis, and his grandfather, Weldon Willis.
Mr. Willis still does much of his work solely by hand; from cutting young saplings to make poles for the pound net sets, mending and dipping his own nets, hand-crafting his own net leads, and sticking his own poles. He opened Mr. Big Seafood, with his father in 1976. In the early years, the duo sold only to local fish houses around Harkers Island, all of which are now shuttered. By 1991, Mr. Willis began catching, shedding and shipping his own soft crabs to Fulton Market in New York City.
Generational loss, high fuel prices, decreasing revenue, and an influx of seafood imports have contributed to the decline of local fishermen on Harkers Island, threatening a centuries-old way of life. Committed to his commercial fishing heritage, Mr. Willis adapted his business in order to continue life on the water. He spearheaded the development of a new facility enabling him to sell his own catch directly to seafood wholesalers and retailers from North Carolina to New York, and he continues to be recognized for his leadership and vision as a commercial fisherman in North Carolina.
As Hurricane Florence takes aim for the Carolinas this week, remember the stories of the people in the local communities. SFA’s full oral history interview with Eddie Willis may be found online here.