Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fred Dockery -- A Man of the Lowcountry Waters

Fred Dockery defies an easy definition. He comes to the shrimping and crabbing business not by birth but by choice. He comes armed with a degree in philosophy and an impeccable fluency in the French language. But the waters cast their spell on him years ago. Now, he utterly depends on them just like the multi-generational fishing families he works alongside. It's not simply a job but a way of life.

However, Fred does bring a unique attitude to this passion, and it's an attitude cultivated by his rich and varied upbringing -- beginning in Montpellier, France. There, in 1964, his single mother, a Portuguese psychologist gave birth to Fred. Shortly thereafter, she met a young American man who happened to be in the area on a Fulbright scholarship. They fell in love, married, and moved to America in 1968. His adopted father's career as a French professor kept the family on the move -- from North Carolina to Iowa to Maine and finally back to North Carolina. Fred even spent another year in France where he spoke the language as if he had never left, and even now his eyes light up when he talks of France.

Eventually, Fred found himself at Bates College in Maine where he studied philosophy simply out of interest. Like so many youth on the cusp of adulthood, he had no idea what he really wanted to do. After college he tried his hand at screenwriting in New York City and environmental education in Connecticut. When neither panned out to his liking, he found himself living in an old airplane hangar on the Connecticut coast contemplating his next move. He also found himself hungry, and when one of his "housemates" offered up his position on a commercial fishing boat Fred started work the next day. He still remembers that first seasick morning out on the water; he loved it.

As it turns out, Fred entered the New England fishing scene at a dynamic time -- the end of the "lobster-trawler wars." Territorial rights play a significant role in commercial fishing, and here the lobstermen believed that the big trawlers had infringed on theirs. Within his first month, the lobstermen fired shots and sunk the 40-foot trawler that employeed Fred. The crew pulled the boat up and repaired it, but the captain had fought his last battle. He offered the job up, and with one month's experience Fred began running his own boat.

"It was like setting a kid loose in a gravel pit with a backhoe!" he says, smiling broadly.

Fred worked various fishing jobs until he met his wife, Catherine, in 1987. They decided to move back down South, closer to both their families, and wound up in Charleston. Fred found work at Atlantic Clam Farms and remained there from 1991 to 1996. After clamming, he tried his hand at oystering, but the work wreaked havoc on his back. Next, Fred turned to crabbing and eventually shrimping. He laughs now, remembering his first attempt at shrimping.

"I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "I was measuring [my catch] in numbers not pounds."

Thankfully, veteran shrimper Neal Cooksey took Fred under his tutelage -- selling him an old net and introducing him to tricks of the trade like the "tickle chain." On his next trip out, he found success -- catching so many shrimp that he ran out of coolers and ice.

These days, his catch can vary from less than a pound to 40 pounds, but Fred does not have quite the stress of the big trawlers. He goes out on a 19-foot skiff, which burns only a fraction of the fuel, and he can crab on the same day. Of course, it's not easy work. Fred goes out most days by himself -- hauling in heavy nets and crab traps. And he hauls them in knowing the sad reality of a market flooded by cheap, imported shrimp. Fred believes that the only real answer to this issue would be taxing these shrimp from Asia and South America or creating government subsidies for American fishermen. Simply put, he likes the grassroots campaigns, but he believes they are just not enough.

"It is not a wasted lesson teaching the value of fresh and local, but people shop with their pocketbooks, and the bulk of them still want big shrimp at a low price," he says.

In addition to such larger issues, Fred also still deals with the territorial drama that seems unavoidable in the fishing business. Feuds between crabbers result in lines to identifying buoys being cut -- meaning a loss of crabs, equipment, and time. Fred tries to stay out of such disputes because one can never be sure who victimized you.

"If I retaliated, remorse would eat me up," he says.

Besides, Fred does not come across as a fighter. In fact, he seems genuinely happy despite the long hours and low pay. He recognizes that that this is a life he chose for himself and his family. He and Catherine have three children -- Carlisle, Evan, and Emma -- all old enough to de-head and sort shrimp. Only one -- his son Evan -- has a real interest in the business. He goes out with Fred on most weekends and even saved up to buy his own boat at age 10.

When asked whether he wonders if Evan would be better off choosing another path, Fred laughs.

"I don't have to wonder; I know he would be better off," he says. "I would be better off too! But on a day like today, where else would I rather be?"

He waves his arm motioning to the world around him -- the sweetgrass whispers; a few white, picturesque clouds float lazily in the blue sky; Spanish moss hangs from the oak trees; herons and egrets soar gracefully; red-winged blackbirds and purple martins flit about; and a gentle, breeze strikes up, as if on cue.


At the GO we buy shrimp, blue crabs, and stone crabs from Fred, and they all represent the supreme quality that only local seafood can offer.

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