- Associated Press - Sunday, June 24, 2018

WANCHESE, N.C. (AP) - Nobody knows more about the ups and downs of the fish industry than Dennis Gore.

Riding high, he was one of the most successful tuna buyers in the world. At the bottom, he was bankrupt, depressed and loathed by commercial fishing captains he couldn’t afford to pay.

At one point, his Rainbow Connections company was “doing $9 million in sales a year, mostly selling bluefin to Japan.” On the other end, he was sitting in his living room, “smoking pot and listening to the Grateful Dead.”

For years Gore refused to talk about it.

“I’ve kept all this inside of me for so long, and it’s been eating at me,” he said while sitting on a picnic table at O’Neal’s Sea Harvest in this sleepy little fishing and boat-building village.

Gore is back on his feet these days. He has a new woman in his life. He’s back to fish-buying, this time working for a Rhode Island-based company. He spends half the year in Manteo and the other in New England.

He said he and Mary Harrison live modestly.

“Hopefully I’m able to convey how remorseful I am,” he said, his eyes tearing. “I really wish I had done things differently.”

Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., Gore spent time with friends fishing on Long Island and sometimes at his family’s condo in Virginia Beach. His angling interests started with flounder and grew through the years to include striped bass and other, bigger species.

In college he and his friends ventured farther offshore to experience the thrill of big-time tuna fishing. He witnessed buyers purchasing fish at the docks and became intrigued.

“It was so cool. I thought, ‘This is what I want to be when I grow up.’ So I started working for a buyer,” he said.

Tuna are bought and sold in a massive, global market. After fishermen wrangle the giant fish, buyers “grade” them with tiny core samples, determining whether they’ll land on a high-end Japanese sushi plate or in a can. It’s a lightning-fast trade with millions at stake.

Once in the business, Gore saw that things could be done better, smoother, easier. There was more money to be made. Lots of it. So when a company he was working for went belly up, he decided to take the last $100 he had and start Rainbow Connections in 1994.

He quickly became obsessed with bigeye and bluefin tuna. Eventually, his competitive nature from playing sports in high school and college would get the best of him.

“Think ‘Wolf of Wall Street.’ The biggest, best tuna, the ones that would bring the most money, I had to have them,” he said. “When another buyer outbid me, I got upset.”

Gore went to France to purchase Mediterranean tuna and made more than a half-million dollars in a couple months, using the cash to crank up his business, he said. Rainbow experienced rapid growth. Probably too rapid, he said.

Gore’s buyers worked in New England, Nova Scotia and overseas.

Then in the late 1990s, a perfect storm struck.

“I found out my fiancee of 10 years was cheating on me,” Gore said. “I was stuck in the office in New York dealing with company issues instead of being out in the field. I had some people working for me that were giving people too much for their tuna and getting kickbacks.

“It’s amazing the number of things that all happened in a couple of years. It seemed like it was all at once.”

A food poisoning scare blamed on imported tuna brought a drastic change in how the Japanese did business. At about the same time, U.S. fisheries managers started implementing stricter regulations to control stocks, slowing sales.

Then there was a fateful decision Gore made in 1999.

“I got a call from a supplier who said he had some bluefin caught by a longline fisherman in North Carolina,” Gore said slowly, trying not to choke up. The quota for bluefin had been met for the year, and keeping any that were caught was off limits. “So we fudged the paperwork and said they were bigeye.”

When the tuna arrived in New York, federal agents called Gore to the shipping house. He was fined $250,000 for fisheries violations after refusing to snitch on the supplier and fishermen.

The IRS also called. It wanted the $700,000 he owed in back taxes.

State police followed with an investigation of Gore and Rainbow. No charges were ever filed, according to New England newspaper accounts. He had to file for a sanctioned bankruptcy.

“I wasn’t in a lucid frame of mind. I was dejected and fell into a deep and dark depressed state,” Gore said. “I made a decision to pay my largest and most-loyal suppliers, and I didn’t bother to tell the others why they weren’t going to get paid. I guess I owed them a few hundred thousand dollars.

“I handled all this very poorly, and that’s my biggest regret of all.”

Gore tried to work a few odd jobs that included commercial fishing, but fell deeper and deeper into despair - at one point not leaving his home for months at a time.

“Six, seven years, I’m not sure,” he said. “I didn’t drink, but all I wanted to do was stay stoned and listen to music.

“I really checked out of life.”

A call from a longtime friend brought Gore out of the funk, and in 2012 he headed to Wanchese to purchase some tuna for Saul Phillips of Phillips Seafood in New Jersey.

He met up with Will Etheridge, owner of a fish house in Wanchese, near Manteo.

Etheridge told Gore he thought he “was crazy getting back into the tuna business.”

“I’m sure I did,” Etheridge said. “But I always liked Dennis and he’s one of the very few people who have the knowledge to properly grade these tuna.”

Later that fall, Etheridge got a call from a rep at George’s Seafood, which needed someone in Virginia Beach to grade bluefin that had shown up along the coast during a striped bass tournament.

That’s when some of the people Gore hadn’t paid arrived on social media. Gore’s name was mud in the commercial fishing industry.

“I kept positive and did my job,” Gore said. “It was hard, but I understand some people were really mad at me.”

The maddest likely was Gloucester, Mass., Capt. Dave Marciano, who runs the boat Hard Merchandise and is a regular on the popular fishing reality TV show “Wicked Tuna” - including episodes filmed out of Oregon Inlet.

“I almost got fired from the show because of my reaction when I saw him,” Marciano said. “All the rage came back. I wanted to skin him alive. At the time I was working two jobs and the boat to keep the home and the boat. Almost killed me.”

Because of his spot on “Wicked Tuna,” his finances are better now, Marciano said. “It wouldn’t be right for me to target him given my situation at this time.”

These days Gore and Harrison are back at the ground level of their business, following the tuna up and down the coast, grading and purchasing for Sea Fresh USA, Inc. They’re ecstatic to be in the business at all.

“Our office is pretty nice,” said Harrison, a graduate of Norfolk Catholic High School, as she looked out over the harbor.

They know some people remain angry.

Dennis‘ heart has always been in the right place,” Sea Fresh’s Martin Fox said. “And enterprises do falter.”

Gore agrees with both sentiments, but still struggles with the fact that he let hard-working people down.

“Back on the docks, I’ve had some contact with some of the people I didn’t pay,” he said, gazing into the distance. “There have been some pretty interesting confrontations the last few years. I understand why people feel that way. I lost everything.

“But I couldn’t stay away. Tuna is in my blood.”

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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