The first permanent English settlers in the mid-seventeenth century combined their knowledge of fishing back in England with lessons learned by their Virginia neighbors and by observing surviving natives. By the 1730s, fishing had become so important that the General Assembly was increasingly petitioned to prohibit mill dams from obstructing the springtime run of herring, the most numerous and locally important species. Fish, especially herring, were salted or smoked for use throughout the year and were an important source of protein for the poor. Free blacks supplied the bulk of the labor used during the immense seine-hauls of seasonal fishing for shad and herring in the region’s waters, most notably the Albemarle Sound and Chowan River. The introduction of “pound nets” in 1869 gradually changed the regional commercial fishing industry entirely, enabling fishermen to start with capital investments of just several hundred dollars and a boat worked by one or two people.
With the development of refrigeration and better transportation during the late 19th century, herring and shad and especially their roe, became major exports from Chowan and Bertie counties, with large fish houses and canneries established in each county. Tokens were used by all the large packing houses to measure a unit of work accomplished. A token was given for each bucket of fish cut and cleaned or roe accumulated and cleaned, and then turned in for cash at the end of the pay period.
Other products of the sea added to the wealth of the Albemarle. Around 1850, diamondback terrapins were caught along the marshes of the Outer Banks and shipped to northern markets where the meat was a delicacy. For a brief period in the 1900s, a factory operated on Hatteras Island to extract oil from porpoises. Albemarle oysters were highly prized at home and at market. Between 1891 and about 1905 commercial oyster packing houses were operated in Elizabeth City, primarily by Baltimore interests, sparking the so-called “oyster wars” over control and exploitation of the region’s extensive oyster beds. State legislation finally limited the influence of northern capitalists and by 1908 the packing houses were abandoned. Many saltwater fish were caught by fishermen in Dare and Hyde counties and also sent to market. Fish wholesalers in Elizabeth City, such as the Globe Fish Company, were important brokers before World War II. Shrimp, once considered to be of no commercial value, became a major money crop after World War II.