BUXTON — Susan West, a longtime advocate for the Hatteras Island fishing community and a writer who helped foster improved communications and respect between regulators and fishermen, died last week 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, speaking Monday to Coastal Review, fondly remembered 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 Thursday at Outer Banks Hospital from complications from cancer treatment, said North Carolina Sea Grant Fisheries Extension Specialist Sara Mirabilio.
“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 at Sea Grant in 2003, she said.
“As a writer, as an activist, she was really good at bringing issues to life,” she 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 fisherman.
In the early 1990s, as tensions started rising around commercial fishing, Susan decided to organize a local women’s auxiliary group to the North Carolina Fisheries Association.
But to Susan 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 coauthored “Fish House Opera” with West, remembered 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 Monday. So they decided to write a book from the watermen’s perspective, which became “Fish House Opera,” published by Mystic Seaport Press.
Garrity-Blake, a cultural anthropologist who teaches marine fisheries policy at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, said that West was not only keenly intelligent and insightful, she was also unflappable.
“She always said, ‘You know, Barbara, we just need to keep plugging along,’” Garrity-Blake recounted. “In the midst of the rough and tumble world of fisheries, she always remained calm. She was just trusted by everybody. I think that’s because she was a reasonable, thoughtful person.”
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’s 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,” she said. “There was a gentleness about her. You never saw her lose her top.”
In addition to her husband, West’s survivors include her mother, Betty Jane Butler of Manteo; brothers, Billy Butler of Easton, Maryland, and Tommy Butler of Raleigh; three nieces; and her dogs, Lydia and Hank, according to her obituary released by Twiford Funeral Homes. She was preceded in death by her father, Thomas Butler.
An informal celebration of West’s life is to be held.
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 to celebrate their friend’s life.
“For an important life like that, yes,” she said. “I just feel like that everyone needs punctuation at the end of our sentence.”