The commercial fisher who saved Stump Sound oysters


If you love North Carolina's famous salty-sweet Stump Sound oysters, take a second to remember seventh-generation commercial fisher Lena Ritter, an inspiration who reminds us how much our voices matter. 

Lena led the charge to save a special place named Permuda Island in the early 1980s. Builders planned nearly 400 condos, a marina, tennis courts and more on the 1.5-mile strip of scrub-forested sand on Stump Sound in Lena's native Onslow County, N.C. Lena knew the project’s runoff pollution would destroy Stump Sound shellfish that she and other commercial fishers depended on for their livelihoods and that lovers of the state’s coast looked forward to eating when they visited the beach. 

“I couldn’t just sit by and let that happen,” she said. 

Lena called the newspaper where she read about the project. She convinced a reporter to dig deeper. Forty-five minutes later, Lena gathered 17 commercial fishers to talk to the journalist. That led to 200 commercial fishers uniting to form the Stump Sound Shellfishermen Coalition.

Lena was not a seasoned advocate. She had never spoken in public or attended a government meeting, but she didn't let those things stop her. Working with the N.C. Coastal Federation, then a new environmental-protection group, Lena learned everything she could about the regulatory and permitting process and spoke passionately at meetings where authorities were considering the condo project and environmental rules. Despite her nervousness, she didn’t flinch when dishing out straight talk. 

“I remember how scared to death I was at that first meeting in Jacksonville. All I knew to do was to speak what was in my heart,” Lena recalled in a 2013 interview. 

She quit fishing for a while to take a night job in a pie factory so that her days would be free to attend numerous meetings as far away as Raleigh. County commissioners threatened to sue Lena for harassment. She was not intimidated. 

Permuda Island ended up a state coastal preserve, and Lena went on to help the N.C. Coastal Federation fight for public access to a boat launch at Morris Landing in Holly Ridge, near Lena's Tar Landing home. Today, the Morris Landing area is a 52-acre preserve

"Our heritage, our culture, our environment our clean water -- it's not for sale at no price,” Lena said in a 1987 North Carolina Sea Grant Coastwatch article

Lena passed away in 2016, but the fire she lights under all of us continues to burn. “I tell people,” Lena said, “'Don't sit down and let 'em take it away from you.'”

Get involved: Your voice makes a difference in saving our local seafood.

Photo: N.C. Coastal Federation

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