THE HARKERS ISLAND WATERMEN
A fading tradition thrives in new hands
by Keia Mastrianni (Gravy, Winter 2016)
A colorful oil painting hangs near the front door inside fisherman Eddie Willis’ second-story home on Harkers Island, North Carolina. It was a Christmas gift from his wife, Alison. In the foreground is Willis’ mother, Dora, seated on a bench with his then-two-year-old daughter, Maggie. Behind them, Willis, in a white tee and black bib overalls, pulls the heads off shrimp. The key figure, though, is Alberto Morales, hat on backwards, head down like Willis, lost in the mundane pleasure of fish-house work. Morales is Willis’ fishing partner. Willis calls him “the other me.” On any given day, it is hard to find one without the other.
Morales is always the first to arrive at the fish house, a set of coral and teal buildings tucked in a curve on Island Road. He calls Willis upon arrival. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” goes Eddie’s morning refrain. He closes his flip phone, slips on a pair of well-worn boat shoes, and rushes out the door.
By the time Willis, a fourth-generation fisherman, arrives, Morales and his wife, Heather, have boxed up soft-shell crabs inside the roadside fish market. Morales wears faded black jeans, tucked into a pair of muck boots. At forty-four years old, he still looks boyish, except for a chin-strap beard that connects to a barely-there goatee. When he smiles, his silver-lined teeth glint in the morning light.
Morales grew up 2,500 miles from Harkers Island in El Bellote, a fishing community in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. His mother left him to be raised by his abuela, Maria. His alcohol-addled father refused to claim him as his son, though they lived and worked in the same coastal town. Morales did not start school until he was eight years old. Instead, he helped his grandmother craft brooms from the stems of coconut leaves to sell. At ten, he joined his uncles on the water. He married at seventeen, and joined a fishing crew at twenty to support his children—daughter Isidra and sons Jesus Eduardo and Ivis. Morales’ first wife eventually left for the United States, leaving him to care for the children alone. He did not hear from her for seven years.
Though work on the fishing boats was steady, money was scarce. In the 1990s, an average week yielded the equivalent of $50. With fishing on the decline in Mexico, Morales’ haul decreased. He cites pollution as the main factor. Industry privatization and expanded competition contributed, too. Morales decided to come to the US.
“I knew if I came here, that I could support my kids in ways that I just couldn’t in Mexico,” says Morales. He wanted his children to earn an education, an opportunity that escaped him. His ex-wife’s brother helped him make the risky and expensive journey across the border in 1997.
With the help of a coyote, Morales crossed the Rio Grande into Texas, then continued to Beaufort, North Carolina, a twenty-mile drive west of Harkers Island. He took a job at a plywood factory. He eventually traded jobs with a cousin who worked the water and couldn’t handle being seasick. So began Morales’ life on Core Sound. P.D. Mason was his boss, a native fisherman from the old guard of Harkers Island watermen, and a mentor to Willis. Morales slept on Mason’s boat. They built trust in each other, and Mason invited Morales to stay in his home while he secured a mobile home for his guest.
In the mornings, Mason would gently wake Morales at 6 a.m. Breakfast beckoned: a plate of over-easy eggs with cheese and fried sausage. The two men developed cariño—deep affection—for each other, says Morales. They spent the next thirteen years together, flounder-fishing off the coasts of Virginia and New York for weeks at a time, and shrimping the warm waters of South Carolina’s lowcountry. They always split the proceeds.
Mason and Morales developed cariño—deep affection—for each other, says Morales. They spent the next thirteen years together, flounder-fishing off the coasts of Virginia and New York for weeks at a time, and shrimping the warm waters of South Carolina’s lowcountry. They always split the proceeds.
Mason, who never had a son, lavished a father’s love on his fishing companion. Morales admits to drinking heavily during his early years in the United States. Mason chastised him, checked in on him, and asked him to go fishing instead. Morales finally divulged his family history.
Mason’s words still resonate for Morales: “Leave all that in the past,” he said. “You have a father here now.”
After church on Sundays, the two would head out on the water. “In Mexico, you do what you see on the water,” says Morales. “But with P.D., he was always preparing me for the next step.”
Morales gained a waterman’s education typically reserved for Harkers Island natives. Mason taught Morales how to drive the boat, showed him how to locate fish, and helped him secure a commercial fishing license. Mason eventually fell ill, unable to work the water. Four years ago, on Mason’s recommendation, Morales went to work for Willis.
Morales gained a waterman’s education typically reserved for Harkers Island natives.
For a fisherman who has watched the traditions of his father and grandfather slowly fade into a lost art, Willis takes Morales’ partnership to heart. “Alberto, my heart and soul,” says Willis. “We’ve never had a cross word, no quarrel.”
At three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, it’s time to stick poles. The Coree Indians were the first to use this ancient method of impoundment fishing in Core Sound. Fishermen cut young saplings from the maritime forests for pound stakes, which they stick into the sea floor. The poles are the framework for an elaborate series of nets. Fish unwittingly swim into the nets, sealing their fate. Willis turns to his cohort and says, “Let’s do this, ’Berto.”
Morales and Willis work in tandem while a reluctant young helper maneuvers the boat. A generator-powered pump jet churns incessantly. Morales grabs a stake from a pile and props it on the edge of the skiff. Willis sticks the pump jet into the bottom of the sound with a long aluminum pole while Morales, stake in hand, waits for the nod. Without hesitation, they make the hand-off. Morales takes the jet out of Willis’ hands, and Willis grabs the pound stake. The pole slides with ease into the sea floor. They repeat this along the “Great Wall,” the name Willis coined for the massive configuration of poles that spans 2,300 yards across the water. In three hours’ time, Morales’ white oyster gloves are soaked and grayed from soil and seawater. Willis’ T-shirt collar sags with sweat.
“What I’ve learned from P.D. and Eddie are things I would have never thought of learning, things that the locals don’t even know,” says Morales. “I know where the crabs are, and that when the half-moon rises, it’s time for shrimp.”
The Willises have supported Morales’ path to citizenship, which he’s been working on for the last three years.
“Alberto has come to be a lifelong friend and family member. He knows what I’m going to do before I do it, and I know what he’s going to do,” says Willis. On Harkers Island, a tight-knit community that holds fast to its traditions, Morales might have once been thought an outsider. Not now. “When I quit, this is all his,” says Willis.
Like the waters of Core Sound, the tide inevitably shifts. Morales has already recruited his son, Jesus Eduardo, to come work at the fish house. When the time comes, he will pass on the tradition to the next generation of Southern watermen.
Keia Mastrianni is a writer based in Shelby, North Carolina. Find her Harkers Island oral history project for the SFA online at southernfoodways.org. Translation by Victoria Bouloubasis.