Lee County is the second-highest grossing commercial landing site for saltwater seafood in the state. It’s outranked only by Monroe County, which sits at the southwest tip of the state and includes the Florida Keys. Source: Florida Department of Agriculture
THE LAST OF THE FLEET
A late-season tropical storm swirls above Fort Myers Beach, and at the shrimp docks on nearby San Carlos Island, the fleet has come home to ride out the storm. The wind howls and rigging clinks. The boats groan as they strain against their lines. These docks have witnessed great changes over the years, from the origins of the Southwest Florida shrimping industry in the 1950s to its heyday in the 1980s to the mass exodus of boats in the early 2000s. Today, two local shrimping companies remain—Trico and Erickson & Jensen. Each company owns 12 boats. Independent shrimp boat captains also unload at the docks. Together, they form the heart of the San Carlos Island fleet.
In an industry battered by rising fuel costs and cheap imported shrimp, buffeted by weather and government restrictions, a few hardy shrimpers have hung on. “It’s left those who are lean and mean and very efficient,” says Deborah Long with the Southern Shrimp Alliance.
A HARD LIVING, A GOOD LIVING
Shrimping is not for the faint of heart. Most shrimp boats today head out with a three-man crew for 30 to 40 days at a time. They work at night and rest during the day. The boats themselves can be dangerous, the deck winches in particular. According to the CDC, workers in the commercial fishing industry have the highest occupational fatality rate in the United States, 35 times higher than any other occupation. And that’s to say nothing of the weather, which can blow in quickly and do serious damage.
When the shrimp boats are in port, the crew isn’t on vacation. The haul has to be un-loaded and the boats need tending. There’s always something mechanical that has to be fixed. By the time the crew has settled into shore life, it’s time to head out again.
But for many shrimp boat captains, the hard work pays off. Shrimping is an industry where a person can make a good living. The running joke on the docks is that the hard-living captain with engine grease under his nails goes home to a house he bought with cash. He’s usually driving a truck that’s paid for, too.
“When the boat captains are down on the docks, they’re working like a farmer or a rancher. They’re hot and sweaty, they’re shoveling stuff, they’re working on mechanics, but when they go home that all washes off,” says Joanne Semmer, president of the Ostego Bay Foundation on Fort Myers Beach. Semmer grew up near the San Carlos Island shrimp docks and her daughter, former Fort Myers Beach mayor Tracey Gore, is married to a shrimp boat captain. “If you’re a good fisherman—good and serious about it, and you take care of your product and your employees—you can make a very good living,” Semmer says. “It’s the American dream. Work hard and be successful.”
In 1981, in an effort to prevent overfishing, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service took over management of the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery. It took 20 years of research and discussion before the council enacted a federal commercial permit requirement for all shrimp boats harvesting in federal waters. By 2006, roughly 3,000 shrimp boats had received permits.
At the same time, the shrimp industry was facing major hurdles. The price of fuel had skyrocketed in the early 2000s, eating into profits, and cheap imported shrimp had flooded the U.S. market. Combine these economic troubles with reduced hauls from mandatory turtle excluder devices, and shrimping suddenly looked a whole lot less profitable. Many shrimpers decided to leave the industry.
Eventually, enough boats permanently tied up at the docks that the Gulf shrimp industry started to make money again. But the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council worried that a spike in profitability would entice new boats to take up shrimping. In order to protect the existing fleet, the council enacted a 10-year moratorium on new shrimping permits.
In the fall of 2016, at the 10-year anniversary of the initial moratorium, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council extended the moratorium for another decade. It’s currently in effect until July 2026.
In the late 1980s, commercial shrimpers came under fire from environmentalists trying to protect sea turtles. A 1990 study by the National Academy of Sciences blamed trawling nets for killing “more sea turtles than all other human activities combined.” Between 1973 and 1984, an estimated 48,000 sea turtles were caught in trawl nets each year. More than 10,000 died. In the Gulf of Mexico, many of the sea turtles trapped in commercial nets were loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys, both on the endangered species list.
The proposed solution was using turtle excluder devices (TEDs), developed by shrimpers and scientists at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries. A TED is a grid of bars that fits into the net of a shrimp trawl. Although shrimp pass through the bars and are trapped in the bag at the end of the net, sea turtles are stopped short. They’re then ejected through an opening in the net into the water.
Advocates claimed TEDs reduced sea turtle death rates by 97% and only reduced the shrimp catch by 5% to 13%. But shrimpers said the reduced haul was closer to 30% to 50%. More significantly, foreign shrimping vessels not governed by U.S. environmental laws weren’t required to use the devices, putting American shrimpers at a competitive disadvantage.
Though the debate raged for several years in the media and in the courtroom, sea turtles ultimately won out. Beginning in the early 1990s, turtle excluder devices were required on all commercial trawling nets.
The biggest threat to American shrimping is foreign imported shrimp. Roughly one billion pounds of shrimp are imported from overseas each year, compared to 200 million pounds harvested domestically. Today, nearly 90% of the shrimp eaten in the United States is imported.
The United States began importing shrimp in the 1960s when the American demand outpaced what the boats in the Gulf and South Atlantic could provide. In the early 2000s, the domestic shrimp market saw a sharp increase in foreign imports. The reasons? Increased supplies of farm-raised shrimp, especially from South Asia; decreased demand for shrimp in Japan, which had once been a major consumer; raised tariffs in the European Union on Asian shrimp; and a strict ban in the EU on antibiotics in farm-raised shrimp. Together, these events created a glut of cheap foreign shrimp which flooded the U.S. market.
NOAA carefully monitors the populations of pink Gulf shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the most recent available data from NOAA’s 2018 stock assessment, pink Gulf shrimp are currently above target population levels.
One of the main factors that contributes to Gulf shrimp’s sustainability is their longevity—or lack of it. Pink Gulfs have a short life span, typically less than two years. That’s why they’re referred to as an annual crop. Shrimpers often say, “If we don’t harvest them, they’ll die of natural causes.”
THE FUTURE OF SHRIMPING
Shrimpers have long been at the mercy of forces outside their control—rising fuel prices, cheap imported shrimp, bad weather. Now, Gulf shrimpers are actively carving out a niche for themselves and their product. In the way that small-batch wine producers have created a cult following, Gulf shrimpers are sparking enthusiasm for wild-caught pink Gulf shrimp.
“People think shrimp is shrimp,” says Anna Erickson, who works for her father’s shrimping company, Erickson & Jensen. “They don’t understand the difference between a wild-caught shrimp and a farm-raised shrimp.”
That is, they don’t understand the difference until they taste them side by side. People who compare the two are shocked to discover the difference. “There’s nothing like a Gulf shrimp,” Erickson says. “It tastes like the sea.”
TOP COMMERCIAL FISHING PRODUCTS HARVESTED IN THE STATE OF FLORIDA IN 2019, BY POUND:
Pink shrimp (220 million pounds)
Blue crab (190 million pounds) Mullet (178 million pounds)
Grouper (116 million pounds)
Stone crab (105 million pounds)
Spiny lobster (101 million pounds)
Source: Florida Department of Agriculture