By Catherine Kozak | Outer Banks Voice on November 14, 2022
Susan West, a long-time advocate for the Hatteras Island fishing community and a writer who helped foster improved communications and respect between regulators and fishermen, died on Nov. 10 at age 73.
“She made sure that Hatteras and those small fishing communities were never left out of the conversation,” recalled Karen Willis Amspacher, director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island. “She made sure Hatteras was at the table.”
Amspacher fondly remembers being able to pick up the phone to talk to her friend at 4:30 a.m. and engage in long conversations.
“She was the person I would call when I needed clarity and rational thought,” she said. “She understood people and she understood her community.”
West passed away unexpectedly on Thursday at Outer Banks Hospital from complications from cancer treatment, said Sara Mirabilio, Fisheries Extension Specialist North Carolina Sea Grant.
“She was a dear friend, personally and professionally,” she said, adding that besides working on fisheries issues together, they had a close bond as breast cancer survivors.
West has been a part of Mirabilio’s life since she started working in 2003 at Sea Grant, she said. “As a writer, as an activist, she was really good at bringing issues to life,” Mirabilio said. “She was definitely an advocate for the industry…yet her demeanor was very calming and inclusive.”
As a young transplant to the Outer Banks from Baltimore, the course of West’s life was set after meeting Rob West, a surfer from Long Island, when they worked together at a Hatteras restaurant in the 1970s. After they married, Rob became a commercial fishermen.
In the early ‘90s, as tensions started rising around commercial fishing, Susan decided to organize a local women’s auxiliary group to the North Carolina Fisheries Association. For West, a graduate of Towson State University who had worked for the Maryland Historical Society before coming to Hatteras, the women’s group tapped her talent as a dogged researcher and patient communicator who could understand arcane fisheries policies and translate it to watermen and their families with clarity and precision.
Barbara Garrity-Blake, who later co-authored Fish House Opera with West, remembers first meeting her in 1992 at a Hatteras-Ocracoke women’s auxiliary Fisheries Association meeting. “There she was, with that long red braid halfway down to her butt,” Garrity-Blake recalled. The two became fast friends, and in no time, “fisheries conspirators,” she said.
After serving three years together on the Moratorium Steering Committee, a collaborative state legislative panel created to overhaul fisheries policy that led to the 1997 Fisheries Reform Act, the two women agreed that most people had little understanding of fisheries issues or fishermen, Garrity-Blake said. So they decided to write a book from the watermen’s perspective, Fish House Opera, which was published by Mystic Seaport Press.
Garrity-Blake, a cultural anthropologist who teaches marine fisheries policy at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, said that West was not only keenly intelligent and insightful, but she was also unflappable.
With her deliberate speaking style — composed and paced, as Garrity-Blake described it — people listened to West and respected the way she handled herself when she approached problems. “Instead of raising hell, she would raise a question,” she said.
West’s remarkable accomplishments also included an oral history project, “Carolina Coastal Voices,” that involved transcribing old and new interviews with old-timers and community members, a blog with Garrity-Blake, “Raising the Stories,” and a leadership program or “Fish Camp” that hosts dozens of young people interested in or newly licensed in commercial fishing.
She also served on the board of NC Catch and helped organize the Dare County Working Watermen’s Committee.
In addition, West is an award-winning writer who has penned numerous articles for multiple publications. And she was instrumental in launching the annual “Day at the Docks” in Hatteras and its popular “Seafood Throwdown” chef contest that began as a celebration of survival of the village after Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
West appreciated the fishing heritage of the Outer Banks. But she realized that it was more practical — and meaningful to state regulators and policymakers— for the fishing community to focus on the importance of their livelihood and the income and seafood product they produce for themselves and the state, said Lynne Foster, a Hatteras resident and friend who with her husband Ernie Foster, runs the Albatross Fleet.
“She poured all her energy into what she could do to preserve fishing here,” Foster said. But her style leaned into warm, honest and witty rather than aggressive “Susan was always kind. There was a gentleness about her. You never saw her lose her top.”
An informal celebration of her life will be held later, but Amspacher said the “girls” who have worked for so many years alongside West are already planning to meet on Hatteras in the coming months for that purpose.
“For an important life like that, yes,” she said. “I just feel like that everyone needs punctuation at the end of our sentence.”