Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association Hosts Seafood Festival

Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association Seafood Festival - People preparing food under a white tent

Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association Seafood Festival in St. Helena Island, SC.

A perk of working with fishermen is of course getting a chance to taste some of the best seafood around. When I learned that the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association would organize its very first annual seafood festival, I didn’t need to be convinced that it would feature the finest dishes in the Lowcountry. Held last Saturday in St. Helena Island, SC, the festival brought together visitors, neighbors, families, and friends for a celebration of good eating. 

The event was a fundraiser and membership drive for the newly founded organization. GGFA formed earlier this year as an outcome of meetings led by EDF and the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition to reach out to the African-American fishing community in the Southeast. Many within this community identify themselves as Gullah/Geechee, the descendents of West African enslaved people brought to the United States nearly 400 years ago.

Gullah/Geechee Seafood Festival - Container of collard greens, macaroni and cheese, cornbread and stuffed crab and other seafood.

Delicious food from the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association Seafood Festival

On Saturday, the air was flooded with the aroma of savory, traditional Gullah/Geechee seafood cuisine. Fried shrimp, whiting, flounder, oysters, deviled crab, steamed crab, shrimp and grits, and gumbo were only some of the dishes the association had to offer during the festivities. Members of the association supplied much of the seafood and served as chefs providing mouth watering fish hot off the stove. The food was nothing short of a feast.

In an interview earlier last week, Queen Quet, head of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and secretary of GGFA, conveyed the cultural significance of the festival. According to Queen Quet, it is important to support GGFA because of its objective to passed down this customary knowledge to the next generation. For the Gullah/Geechee, fishing is an aspect of their culture worth honoring. It is a life skill that endured the African Diaspora and later helped to provide financial independence for the people. Thus ensuring healthy marine resources is an essential piece to protecting this “unbroken” tradition.

Oyster shells in a large plastic white basket

Oyster shells

Turnout for the event was strong, helping to raise enough money just shy of the association’s goal. In lieu of the successful festival, the GGFA is already looking into plans for next year. 

Congratulations to GGFA for putting on a great event. The level of hard work that went into it was evident throughout the joyous occasion and was reflected in the delectable dishes.  Luckily for those who missed out, you have a year to work up an appetite for the next festival; I can promise you it will be worth the wait.

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Last Stop – Sea Breeze, NC

Queen Quet with Gullah Geechee fishermen and other listening session attendees in Sea Breeze, NC.

Queen Quet with Gullah Geechee fishermen and other listening session attendees in Sea Breeze, NC.

During the past few months the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition and EDF have held listening sessions with African-American fishermen in the South Atlantic – from South Carolina to Florida and Georgia. The sessions provided us with the opportunity to listen and document the concerns of these fishermen working in commercial and subsistence fisheries.

Our series of listening sessions concluded last weekend in Sea Breeze, North Carolina. Fitting of its name, Sea Breeze once hailed as a popular beach destination for African-Americans in the Wilmington area. Members of the community recollected that on any given Friday night, Sea Breeze was alive with the sound of music and smell of cooked seafood. Our gathering was certainly reminiscent of the past, as local fishermen gathered around a feast of fresh seafood to discuss the important role fishing has played in their lives and how that has changed over time.

Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee nation and founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, led the meeting of nearly 30 participants. Although many do not continue to fish today, everyone in the room indicated they used to fish at one point in their lives. “Fishing was natural because the whole family did it,” explained attendee Mrs. McQuillan.

Only four men in attendance still remain in the commercial fishing sector with the years of experience varied among them. Fishing partners Luther McQuillan and Joe Farrow have been fishing for 60 and 70 years – a way of life that began when they were mere children. According to the four fishermen, Southeastern staples like shrimp, oysters, clams, and crabs were some of the more sought-after fish, in addition to croaker, mullet, red drum, and whiting.

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Listening Sessions with Gullah/Geechee Fishermen Continue

Gullah/Geechee fishermen listening session with EDF and Queen Quet (standing).

Gullah/Geechee fishermen listening session with EDF and Queen Quet (standing).

My journey to engage and build relationships with Southeastern, African-American fishermen continued last week with stops in Florida and Georgia. On Friday and Saturday, I reunited with Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, to co-sponsor listening sessions in Fernandina, Florida and Brunswick, Georgia. Mirroring the session previously held in South Carolina, the focus of the events was to document the concerns of African-American fishermen in these areas regarding their ability to continue fishing.

Both coastal areas have a large Gullah/Geechee community and a history in the fishing tradition. The Gullah/Geechee have been a part of this history for years. Fishing is truly a valued craft upon which this group places great importance. It enabled them to become self-sufficient, feed their families and neighbors, bring the community together, and generate a sufficient income. However, as seen in fishing communities throughout the United States, many fishermen have left the waters due to various impediments that have made it difficult to continue this way of life.

Fernandina, Florida

Held at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in Fernandina Beach, Queen Quet began the meeting asking attendees to share what the community had and what it has today. According to participants, seafood became a major industry in Fernandina. Equipped with the knowledge of their elders, African-Americans perfected the craft of cast net making, crab picking, and shrimp heading, among other skills. Although the fishermen harvested a variety of fish including shad, porgy, oysters, and shark, most fishermen were shrimpers. 

Participants in the session provided poignant accounts of their relationship with the sea.  Some vividly described events they experienced on the water that were nothing short of miracles; for instance, one fisherman was able to survive turbulent waters for days after his ship capsized. There was an apparent religious connection between the waters and the heavens in the Gullah/Geechee culture.

While some had their prayers answered in such times of need, others witnessed problems developing that complicated African-American participation in fisheries. Attendees noted several issues that affected their ability to fish:

  • The price of fuel blowing out of proportion,
  • Great overhead costs,
  • Diminishing waterfront access,
  • Pollution, and
  • Difficulty competing with the prices of foreign imports.
Coastal ...

Coastal Florida

The community really changed with the emergence of mills; many people left the fish houses to work in mills because of the benefits and wages. The number of small boat owners today is nearly non-existent, and there isn’t a large interest by the youth to fish.

Brunswick, Georgia

During the meeting, Brunswick was described as once being the seafood capitol of the world – oysters were in excess and the conditions were good for shrimp. Today there are two major seafood plants, SeaPak and King & Prince Seafood, among other smaller companies. Such companies had their own boats when they first started, and African Americans served as crew members, but problems began to rise once the supply was gone.

It was believed that around 20 years ago, area companies started to heavily rely on imported fish from Asia and South America. Now, although there is marketing for fish from Georgian waters, fishermen are having trouble competing with the much lower prices of imported seafood.

Fishermen in Brunswick have traditionally harvested whiting, oysters, mullet, catfish, croaker, blue crab, shad, shrimp, oysters, and at one time turtle eggs. There are a handful of boat owners currently; many became discouraged from going out into the waters because of the costs of owning a boat. Concerns raised during the session were similar to those stated in Fernandina:

  • High costs,
  • Overfishing,
  • High levels of mercury,
  • Run-off and pollution from chemical plants,
  • Poor quality of farm raised seafood,
  • Competition with imports, and
  • Scarcity of the resource forcing fishermen to go father away from local fishing grounds.

Is there a future?

When asked if there is sufficient interest here for newcomers to enter the industry, there was a mixed bag of reactions to this question. While some believed they knew of a couple of people interested in teaching the next generation these useful skills, others didn’t believe such efforts were worthwhile.

However, many attendees called for a better fishing future because they see fishing as essential to sustaining their way of life and families. They expressed a need to have young people present in these talks or there will be no future, as this will reconnect children to their culture and history. Queen Quet stated that the community suffers if it does not know how to feed itself. She concluded “we recognize collectively we have something to offer.”

The last listening session is slated for April 17 in North Carolina. All comments made thus far will be reviewed with those in the next session to determine what steps can be taken in addressing some of issues this group is facing.  In understanding the challenges they are dealing with, EDF hopes to work further with the Gullah/Geechee Nation to provide a voice for a culture striving to retain a way of life that gets them back to the way they were.

Nicole Smith is a 2009 – 2010 Oceans Program Fellow working to engage African-American fishermen in the U.S. southeast.

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Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, and EDF Host Fishermen Listening Session in Beaufort, SC

Gullah/Geechee Fishermen Listening Session-Beaufort_SC_045The Oceans program has developed robust relationships with an array of people across the U.S. including fishermen, scientists, academics, and political leaders; however, it‘s not every day that it works closely with royalty. Over the past several weeks, the Oceans program has partnered with Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee nation, and the organization she founded, the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition in its effort to engage African-American fishermen in the Southeast – the voices of whom haven’t been apart of the conversation to sustain fisheries.  

For many years, Queen Quet has diligently championed the conservation of the rich Gullah/Geechee culture and heritage. The Gullah/Geechee is a minority group within the African-American population. Spanning from the coast of Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, the Gullah/Geechee nation has upheld the linguistics and traditions of their West African ancestry. The Gullah/Geechee  are a people that have lived off the land and water for over 300 years, and their inherent ties to these resources are pervasive throughout their way of life.

Gullah/Geechee Fishermen Listening Session-Beaufort_SC_051Because the continuity of this way of life is pertinent for Queen Quet and her people who have fished for generations, she expressed a keen interest in collaborating with EDF to better understand the challenges facing African-Americans for what has been perceived as a changing rate of participation in subsistence and commercial fisheries.  To best document the concerns of this community, EDF and the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition cosponsored a listening session in Beaufort, South Carolina on January 21st. The event was a great achievement and brought together local and state officials and approximately 30 fishermen. For a group that generally has not been present at public forums in the past, this turnout signified the importance of the subject.

Gullah/Geechee Fishermen Listening Session-Beaufort_SC_047According to Queen Quet, seafood is one of the major sources of employment for the Gullah/Geechee. During the meeting, the fishermen openly shared their concerns about the fishing industry, drawing comments from nearly everyone in the auditorium throughout the night.

The adversities identified by the community included size and catch limit restrictions, limited access to docks and oyster beds, depletion of fish stocks, unawareness of changing regulations and management decisions, and rising costs. These are the type of issues confronted by many of the fishermen with whom EDF works.  Although the fishermen looked to EDF to present solutions to the issues identified, they also saw the value in shaping a collective voice. When asked, there was an incredible consensus by the fishermen to form a Black fishermen association encompassing the South Atlantic region.

The information gathered from these sessions will be shared with political leaders such as Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to bring awareness to an issue affecting the livelihoods of their constituency and begin to chart a way forward. We intend to proceed with another listening session in North Carolina in April.

As the session concluded, the attendees were interested in keeping this momentum strong and inquired about a follow-up meeting taking place. Needless to say, we were extremely heartened about this great start.  We will work to continue to build a strong relationship with this community and help them find solutions to their challenges that will result in sustainable and healthy fisheries.

Nicole Smith is a 2009 – 2010 Oceans Program Fellow working to engage African-American fishermen in the U.S. southeast.

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Uncovering a Rich Fishing Heritage Among African-Americans in the Southeast

From left to right: Thomas Barnwell, Dr. Emory Campbell, Celia Barnwell, Isaah Kidd, and Sarah Simmons - All in Hilton Head, SCLast week, I spent two days hitting the front lines in South Carolina in my year-long journey to share the captivating stories of an invisible and dwindling population – African-American fishermen of the Southeast. African-Americans played an integral role in shaping the maritime South, an aspect of history that is little known to many. However, in recent years, their presence on the water has changed – there are not as many of these fishermen as there once was.

The venture to South Carolina was the first trip in my effort to better understand the causes behind this change in participation. EDF Fishery Project Manager, Eileen Dougherty and I had the pleasure of meeting with several people in the Palmetto state; yet, my meeting with a group of Low-Country natives truly resonated with me the most.

The meeting, held at the house of former shrimper Thomas Barnwell, was anything but a meeting. It was more like a homecoming to a family I had recently come to know. We were welcomed with a delicious spread of food, as we all gathered around the table to talk and break bread. In attendance were Thomas Barnwell, Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commissioner Dr. Emory Campbell, oysterman Isaah Kidd and his two sisters Celia Barnwell and Sarah Simmons. 

Hudson’s, a family-owned seafood house and restaurant, owns the remaining two docks on Hilton Head IslandIt was very interesting listening to different perspectives about their ever-changing fishing community. The conversation was lively and covered many topics. According to Dr. Campbell, blacks comfortably found independence in the seafood industry. For a long time, fishing and farming were the only occupational options they were presented. Much of our discussion was focused on the lack of access to financial resources, and many argued that better access to capital would bring in more African-Americans to the industry. There was a consensus that a change in culture was also responsible for disengagement.

Their experiences varied, but they all helped to contribute to the story of a tradition that spanned multiple generations. It is this story that I want to convey to policymakers like Congressman James Clyburn and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Providing a voice to this population is a necessary start to preserving this cultural heritage and way of life.

Nicole Smith is a 2009 – 2010 Oceans Program Fellow.

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