Legendary Captain Joe Rose Retires

By Barbara Garrity-Blake

April 6, 2019

Captain Joe Rose of Beaufort is a rare breed of fisherman. He is one of the few remaining owner-operators in the Atlantic Coast fleet of ocean-going draggers that ply the waters from Cape Hatteras to the Grand Banks near Nova Scotia. He talks about underwater topography and place names unfamiliar to the average landlubber: Hudson Canyon. New York Gully. Monster Ledge. Baltimore Canyon.

Closing in on his 72nd birthday, Captain Rose is hanging up his oilskins. He took his last trip before Christmas. He sold his 86 foot steel trawler Susan Rose to The Town Doc in Port Judith, Rhode Island, a wholesale seafood company whose motto is Holding Squid to a Higher Standard.

Independent trawler captains like Rose are becoming fewer in number for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the increasingly prohibitive cost of federal fishing permits. Permits, traded on the free market, are typically sold with the boat, and can far exceed the vessel’s value.

“You get three times more for the permits than you actually get for the boat,” Captain Rose remarked. He has access to several fisheries, reflecting his philosophy of fishing.

“I’ve tried to mix my fishery up so that I can be into everything. Whatever was good at the time.” His permits include summer flounder, sea bass, porgies, monkfish, dogfish, and skates.

As few individuals can afford to buy into federal fisheries, the image of the independent fisherman plying the seas is giving way to the reality of hired captains working for companies who can afford the hefty price tag.

“It’ll just be one big company before it’s all over with,” Joe Rose mused. He counted on one hand the number of owner-operator captains from North Carolina who still participate in mid-Atlantic and northern fisheries.

It wasn’t always this way. Captain Rose recalled when independent fishermen were the norm, and small wholesale buyers were everywhere.

“We’d pack out at Billy Smith’s in Beaufort and you’d see pickup trucks all the way to Morehead bridge,” he said. “Right behind the other – getting fish and going all over the state with them. You don’t see that no more – now it’s tractor trailers, and four or five plants from here to New Bedford take it all.” He added, “That’s what quotas do.”

When you know it all, you can get it all.

Joe Rose was born in a fishing family. His father, Clarence Rose, fished out of Beaufort, Vandemere, and even Greenport, Long Island.

“That’s where we grew up summertime,” he said. “Daddy lobstered out of there.”

One of eight siblings, Joe Rose and three of his brothers – Kenneth, Benny, and Bickle, became full-time commercial fishermen. Joe began fishing with his father at fifteen.

“And I never earned a full share on Daddy’s boat until I was married two years! He told me, when you know it all, you can get it all.”

Captain Rose and his brothers participated in a great variety of fisheries, including the flynet fishery off North Carolina. Flynets don’t drag the bottom but fish higher in the water column for pelagic species like gray trout. “One morning I packed out at Ralph Taylors on Core Creek,” Joe Rose recalled. “Got ice and stuff, and was back out the inlet by two o’clock.” He rounded Knuckle Buoy at Cape Lookout Shoals and noticed something strange. “I seen brown water come up – what in the world? It was fish, kicking the mud up in eleven, twelve fathoms of water.” He spun his vessel around and set his net. In no time he was steaming back to the dock with 40 thousand pounds of trout.

“I called Ralph, and he said, Naw you’re just joking! You ain’t got no fish on that boat that quick! I said, have the gang down there. I’ll be there in an hour.”

Fly nets were banned south of Cape Hatteras by state managers in the early 1990s in an attempt to recover gray trout stocks. In Captain Rose’s view, the closure had little impact.

“All the species are going north,” he shrugged. “And we go where the fish are.” He pointed to the unusual abundance of shrimp off the North Carolina coast this winter, and the growing quantities of trout, sea mullet, and spot caught up north, as examples.

“A man caught 3,000 pounds of spots in one tow last year off Point Judith, Rhode Island,” he said. “He wouldn’t take them to the dock until he found out what they were – he had never seen them before!”

Give the boat a break. Let us pack ‘em where we caught ‘em.

Since the Government implemented state-by-state quotas of summer flounder in 1993, North Carolina has received the largest share of the fishery on the Atlantic Coast, reflecting decades of high landings by Tarheel fishermen. Trouble is, summer flounder populations are trending north, and the bulk is now caught off New Jersey and New York. So fishermen permitted to land flounder in North Carolina find themselves catching fish up north, only to steam south to Beaufort Inlet to unload their catch.

“Our fuel expenses last trip was $3,800, to steam two and a half days from New York to Beaufort Inlet, two and a half days back to the fishing grounds, Captain Rose explained. “Five days, just to unload your fish.” Although Oregon Inlet is the closest entry for boats steaming from the north, it is all but impassible due to shoaling.

“Every time I went in Oregon Inlet I’d tear something up and it would cost me 15, 18 thousand dollars,” said Rose. He thinks one solution to the summer flounder quandary is to allow fishermen to unload their fish in whichever state is most convenient, and count the poundage against the quota of the state that issued the permit.

“Give the boat a break – let us pack ‘em where we caught ‘em and credit it back to North Carolina,” Captain Rose said. He acknowledged the downside of this scenario: North Carolina fish houses would lose valuable winter business, which could threaten the state’s seafood infrastructure. There is no easy solution to this management problem. Rose did hold out hope that summer flounder may once again occur off North Carolina, if the Gulf Stream moves further offshore and waters cool.

“This year, summer flounder have started to move back down. They’re all the way down to Baltimore Canyon now.”

Some of the guys had come aboard in the night and stole part of the fish while we were asleep. I said, Now this is cute.

Joe Rose and his brothers have unloaded fish in every major fishing port along the eastern seaboard, from Gloucester, Massachusetts to Cape Canaveral, Florida. His favorite port is his hometown of Beaufort, but he also has fond memories of the people and communities of Port Judith, Rhode Island and Chincoteague, Virginia. He recalled a not-so-positive experience in the historical whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

“One night we went into New Bedford and had to wait until morning before they could start unloading us,” Rose said. He and his crew hit their bunks for the night, and the next morning they awoke to find the hatches off the boat.

“Some of the guys on the dock had come aboard in the night and stole part of the fish while we were asleep. I said, Now this is cute.” The police never found the thieves. “They had security cameras on the dock – just so happened one was broken.”

Captain Rose had an unusual experience when he steamed toward Browns Bank between Georges Bank and Nova Scotia. “Had a light gray line on a map with little fish on it – I didn’t know what it meant.” Turns out it marked an International boundary that was not to be crossed.

“Here come the Canadian survey boat. He led us into Shelburne Harbor, Nova Scotia.” The next day Captain Rose went to court and faced the judge, explaining that they didn’t intend to break the law – they simply got across the line.

“The judge says, ‘Son, how much money you got on you?’ I said, sir, I don’t know! I reached into my back pocket and pulled out one dollar.” The judge took it and said, “That’s your fine today, but the Queen says don’t be caught across that line no more.”

You got to work around the challenges if you’re going to stay in it.

Captain Rose has seen a lot of changes in the way fisheries are managed. Although regulations have increased, he says he’s never felt “boxed in” or defeated. “You got to work around the challenges if you’re going to stay in it,” he stressed.

He goes above and beyond what’s required to conserve fish. For example, the commercial size limit for black sea bass is four and a half inches, but he makes an effort to target five and a half inches and larger.

“I don’t want to see the small fish anyway – if I can’t sell ‘em I don’t want to see ‘em.” He has the Susan Rose rigged with a water trough and conveyor belt system to help keep small fish alive. “We don’t pick them up with our hands – juvenile fish go overboard just flipping.” He thinks more fishermen should do the same. “That would help the fishery a lot.”

Rose is required to deploy a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) that allows NOAA to track the Susan Rose’s whereabouts. The U.S. Coast Guard boards their vessel regularly. They abide by gear restrictions and regulations specific to each permitted fishery. He reports his catches in a timely manner, and if packing out in two different states he must punch in “steaming with product onboard.” Although ocean-going trawlers are not yet subject to video monitoring like longline vessels, Captain Rose believes that cameras are coming.

“I don’t know how much more they can spy on us,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re going to catch you at.”

You can’t even help people no more.

A longstanding tradition in the commercial fishing industry is for fishermen to set aside a “mess” of fish to give to friends, neighbors, and family. Fishermen are generous in donating larger quantities of their catch for community fundraisers.

“I used to give like a thousand pounds to the fire department or to the church for fish fries about every time we got down this way,” said Captain Rose. But those days are gone for fishermen participating in federally-permitted quota fisheries.

“We’re not allowed to bring fish to the dock to give away,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s against the law because everything’s on quotas and has to be documented and sold. You can’t even help people no more.”

Joe Rose tested the limits of this system just last year, and paid a price.

“Last year I saved some slippery ling and whiting for a friend up in Chincoteague who used to run a clam boat. That’s a species he likes, nobody else probably don’t.” A federal agent approached him on the dock and wrote him a ticket for $500 because he failed to list the handful of fish on his vessel trip report.

“He kept mouthing, mouthing, mouthing. I said, man, I save a man a mess of fish – just write the ticket and go away!”

Take care of the boat and the boat will take care of you.

Captain Joe Rose loves the independence and challenge of fishing. He and his crew prefer to locate fish on their own, steering clear of other vessels. While dragging he›s pulled up wooden blocks from old sailing ships and stray anchors. He’s raced with porpoises and seen his share of whales, as well as stranger beasts like the wolf fish.

“You catch wolf fish east of Georges Bank,” Rose said. “He’s got teeth like a human and he’s mean – comes hissing right at you.”

The Susan Rose has weathered rough storms and quick-changing conditions. “You take The Mistress, just went down off Rhode Island,” Rose said, shaking his head. “Went from light winds to 60, 70 mile an hour just like that in five minutes – that’s the way they do sometimes.” Two men were lost at sea. “I knew the captain,” he added. “He was a good fisherman. That’s too bad.”

Captain Rose stressed the importance of staying calm and having confidence in yourself when conditions get dicey. “Take care of the boat and the boat will take care of you.”

Joe Rose has earned the respect and confidence of his crew, some of whom have stuck with him for several years. Others sign on temporarily, earning sea time to qualify for tug boat jobs. A few are saving money for school. “One boy went to flight school and is now flying airliners.”

My last trip was kind of anxious feeling. What’s next?

Captain Rose has mixed feelings about retiring after almost six decades on the water. On one hand, he knows it’s time, and he’s ready to hand over the helm of the Susan Rose to a new captain.

“Some young kid I hope. With lots of energy! I’m getting a little age on me – I can climb the rigging and stuff but I don’t feel safe like I used to.”

On the other hand, life on shore has its own uncertainties.

“My last trip was kind of anxious feeling. What’s next?” He smiled at his wife Susan, the boat’s namesake. “We’ll see how mama treats me. I can’t give orders no more, I got to take ‘em.”

Joe Rose said he looked forward to spending time with his grandchildren, as he was often away when his own children were growing up. He also looked forward to getting back to his hobby: building radio control airplanes.

“I’ve built over thirty airplanes – that’s what I used to do on the boat when we docked,” he said. While his crew took off for the nearest bar, Joe would break out his tools and get building. “They’d wake up next morning with a headache and no money, and I’d be sitting with my airplane, all my money in my pocket.”

“No,” his wife smiled. “All your money was in your airplane!”

Fishing can be a family affair. Captain Joe’s wife and two children have spent time with him on the Susan Rose while squid fishing off Cape May.

“I have a picture of my daughter, about five years old, picking up butterfish and there’s a squid trying to crawl up her hair!” Rose laughed.

In the family’s living room is a portrait of the extended family next to the Susan Rose. Also on display is the vessel’s original wheel inscribed with a poem written by his daughter Lisa, expressing just how proud the Rose family is of Captain Joe’s legacy as a commercial fisherman.

Love can be shown in many ways
For others to see and feel
But you’ve proved your love to all of us
in the turning of this wheel.

Barbara Garrity-Blake
Living at the Water’s Edge (UNC Press)
P.O. Box 91
Gloucester, NC 28528


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