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Shrimp tales in economic swales

San Carlos Island’s two shrimping companies are facing shortage of new blood while shrimp are plentiful offshore.

August 2, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

For the second time in two years, Trico Shrimp Company isn't sailing off to Texas for the summer season.

Even Erickson & Jensen, San Carlos Island's other commercial shrimping company, stuck around an extra month before moving its operation to its Texas location in late July.

It's been more than a decade since shrimp have been plentiful just off the coast of Fort Myers Beach, but now both San Carlos Island shrimping companies are catching them by the boatful.

Article Photos

Anna Erickson almost always wears this necklace given to her by her dad, Grant Erickson. It was made in the 1970s and was previously worn by Thomas Mitchell, a Texan shrimper Anna knows from her summers spent in the state. Photos by Jessica Salmond.

"We're catching phenomenal amounts right now," said Grant Erickson, owner of Erickson & Jensen, earlier this summer.

Earlier in July, one of his captains reportedly caught 150 baskets, or about 4,000 pounds, just off-shore.

It's a bit of a mystery why the shrimp have returned. Historically, they were plentiful in an area called the Sanibel Grounds, about 10 miles off-shore. For more than a decade, however, they dissipated and shrimpers traveled to the Dry Tortugas area near Key West instead.

Dennis Henderson, co-owner of Trico Shrimp Company, is a member of the shrimp panel, a committee of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. He and other shrimpers have noticed the absence of shrimp right off the coast for the past 12 years. He wanted to get a research study to investigate through the University of Florida, but the study was never undertaken.

"The environment affects it, but we don't really know why," he said. "There seems to be shrimp all over this year."

Rick Bartleson, biologist with the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, said shrimp are social crustaceans and like to school together in larger numbers. Some shrimp could have settled back in at the Sanibel Grounds, signaling others to follow.

"Once a quorum was there, that could have been a signal for other shrimp to stop and make camp," he said.

The Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has records of shrimp catches from each county and from each catching ground. A search for pink shrimp caught in the Fort Myers area shows a sharp drop in catches after 2007, and a sharp increase in 2017.

According to Michelle Kerr, a spokeswoman for FWC, the poor local landings - or catches of shrimp - coincides with similar reports of other invertebrate fisheries for the past 10 years. One possibility for this sudden influx of shrimp is weather and current patterns: distribution of larvae is also highly dependent on the time of release, wind direction, and water circulation, she said.. There may be a large abundance of spawners, but if the currents do not direct the larvae to shore, they do not have a chance to settle, and therefore do not reach the fishery.

The lower numbers can also reflect times when fuel prices were high and negatively impacted fishers' ability to afford to go out, she said.

Grant Erickson suggested the shrimp have been influenced by water quality issues, including the freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River.

"Quality of water is so important. We are environmentally sensitive, more than people know," he said. "If water quality isn't pristine, we'll know real quick."

Kerr said in her email that shrimp are heavily dependent on suitable habitat areas - nursery areas inshore and adult habitat offshore - and on environmental conditions, including temperature and weather patterns.

"Shrimp are reliant on coastal habitats as nursery grounds, and are therefore susceptible to freshwater and nutrient input from land," she said. "This means that yearly fluctuations can reflect heavily on shrimp abundance."

Florida Bay, the estuary at the base of the state, is a haven for fish and shrimp nurseries and has taken a hit in recent years due to the diversion of water out of the Everglades. Erickson said shrimp often lay their eggs in Florida Bay and the larvae take 3 to 6 months to mature before migrating elsewhere. One female can lay up to 90,000 eggs, providing food for a variety of predators.

"Everything eats shrimp," he said. "There's a big balance. It's generically labeled as Mother Nature."

The shrimping industry has retained a small foothold on San Carlos Island, but the working waterfront is one of the last of its kind. Fish houses used to line the state. Now, only a few hubs of commercial fishing remain, such as Cortez Village in Manatee County.

Part of the problem is the lack of younger workers entering the industry and the attrition of older workers with institutional knowledge.

The shrimping industry's aging problem

Charles Livingston* has three shrimp tattooed on his back.

His skin is leathered from the exposure to the elements, and his manner is quiet from days at sea. Born to a fishing family in the St. John's River and now a long-time shrimper, Livingston's whole life has been roped to the water.

"We're a dying breed," the Erickson & Jensen shrimper said.

Shrimpers on Fort Myers Beach can agree: there aren't as many young folks getting into the business these days.

Dennis Henderson and George Gala dropped out of high school to start up their own business, entering into the shrimping industry and working their way up. Forty years later, they are owners and partners of Trico.

"Neither one of us had family in it," Gala said. "We got in it for the money and the work."

They're getting a few younger people in - one of their newest captains, Michael Frost, is 35 and his younger brother also works for them - but not like they used to, they said.

A good captain could make good money still, Henderson said. But the fish house manager, Rick Kalliainen, said that while costs of fuel, equipment and supplies have increased, the amount shrimpers get paid has remained steady. It's dependent on the cost of shrimp per pound. Since 2007, the average price has fluctuated between of $1.95 and $3.45, according to data from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"It feels like a dying business," Kalliainen said. "It used to be good money, but it ain't that way anymore."

One of the largest factors deterring more young men from joining the industry is the labor, he said. The work is hard, the hours are long and they are gone from shore with minimal contact for weeks at a time.

"Of jobs with a bright future, it's not on the top of the list," Darby Doezerbacher, Erickson's office manager, said. "But usually you end a trip with a pocket full of money."

It's not just the lack of labor, either. Equipment costs have risen.

Most shrimping boats that rest on San Carlos Island were built in the 1970s. There aren't many ship builders left that can build a shrimp boat, said Doezerbacher, and even the ones that do have a hard time selling. Kalliainen bought his boat new in March 1977 for $157,000.

"I'd be afraid to say how much they are now," he said. "There isn't enough money in shrimping to get a new one."

On Fort Myers Beach alone, there used to be more than four different commercial companies - Columbia Fish House, Island Packing, Villers and Dixie Fish Company. That's not including the independent shrimpers, many of whom are still in operation, such as Henry Gore with Gore Seafood, Inc.

"The boats used to be docked six deep," said Joanne Semmer, San Carlos Island's historian. She's got files on files of records and photographs of the island's commercial companies. Now, boats are usually tied up two or three together; Erickson & Jensen and Trico are the only two shrimping companies left. There are still several independent shrimpers who catch on their own.

International trade has caused the American shrimper to suffer, too. American shrimpers have had to combat with competition from imported shrimp, which is farmed, not wild-caught and not subject to the same U.S. Food and Drug Administration laws. The imported shrimp, specifically from China, is cheaper and filled with chemical preservatives. Trico and Erickson & Jensen both pledge their catches are chemical-free.

Semmer said the heyday of shrimping was probably in the 70s. But the big decline hit in the 2000s, with the economic recession. Fuel prices got too high for the fishers to make a profit, and people couldn't afford to buy shrimp, she said. The owners of some of the older companies would retire or die, and there would be no one in the family interested or available to take over the business.

Grant Erickson, his crew and his daughter, Anna, headed off to Aransas Pass, Texas, two weeks ago after delaying their move for the local catches. Texas has a different species of shrimp that shrimpers often spend their summer months catching. While they're away, the Gulf pink shrimp have time to reproduce and replenish.

"We're kind of a gypsy life," Grant said, a smile on his face. "We travel and hunt."

The next generation

There are still some young people who are ready to learn the ropes on San Carlos Island.

The basics of the industry have remained the same over decades: sail out, catch shrimp, return and sell. But some changes have been made that only make the job less appealing.

Technological advances allow shrimpers to switch from ice to freezers to keep the shrimp cold, and freezers can keep them colder for longer. Before, fishers had to haul out enough ice to chill the shrimp and make it last until it returned to shore, meaning they could only stay out for a couple weeks at a time. Now, the time spent at sea has increased since the shrimp can be frozen longer.

"Now, the only limitation is fuel," Grant Erickson said.

When Anna Erickson was elementary school, she already knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

She wanted to do what her dad did.

When her father, Grant Erickson, asked her to tell him what he did, she said "you go around telling people they did a good job."

But what he did - and what Anna wanted to do - was carry on a family trade that had been handed down for decades.

"I always knew what I wanted to be. My grandpa was a fisherman, dad was a fisherman," Grant Erickson said. "In this business you start as a fisher and turn into a manager."

Anna Erickson said she grew up hanging around the docks and always wanted to skip school to be at work with her dad. She'd help around where she could, like heading shrimp for the market. She liked that there were always people around, making it fun to be there. Her favorite thing was to see the boats return.

"When the boats come in, it's a joyous feeling," she said.

Anna's also enthusiastic about the business model of shrimping. It's simple and honest, she said: "We unload the boats, we sell the shrimp. I like that."

For the last two years she's been learning the management ropes from her dad. He told her she had to get a degree in business first before she could start working for him in a leadership role.

"Anna getting into the business, I think it's great," he said. "It's the greatest compliment to me."

Many of both Trico and Erickson's seasoned fishers are getting up in years, with some of the oldest in their 70's. Anna Erickson affectionately calls these older industry workers "barnacles," but they're barnacles filled with priceless institutional knowledge.

Livingston, one such barnacle, has been shrimping his entire life. He married his wife on a shrimp boat, and she even had a shrimp tattoo to match his. She died of cancer last year, and he's had a hard year to move on, he said.

But now, Livingston's got his own prodigy to keep him busy.

Livingston met Antonio Sanchez, 25, in Texas during the summer season, when many shrimpers move to the coast of Texas to catch brown shrimp in season. Sanchez was working as a diesel mechanic for John Deere at the time, but Livingston asked him if he wanted to change paths.

"It was supposed to be one trip, but then the rest was history," Sanchez said.

He's now been shrimping for more than six months and has gone out on three trips.

And, he's in it for good, he thinks.

"It was tough at first," he said. "Going from land to sea, I've never been on a boat my whole life."

Sanchez had to adjust to the lack of technology, with no internet or wifi or phone. It can be difficult for some people to be away for 20 to 30 days at a time.

But the hardest thing was getting used to the tight quarters, he said.

"You can't go wherever you want, you can't go walk down the street," he said. "Now you only have 65 feet to go."

Part of the difficulty wasn't the manual labor, but more of the physiological adjustment from being stuck in one place for a month.

"You have to deal with your problems, because there's nowhere to run from them," he said. "It's changed me."

It's not the easiest life - and it's a short fall to get dragged under from bad influences. Grant Erickson said that the business can attract people who are on the edges of society, and with them can come bad habits, especially drugs or alcoholism. They get clean while they're out. Then, when they come back and get paid, they spend all their money on drugs and get right back into their addictions, he said.

Sanchez is determined, that's not the life he wants. His method is to stay busy and work, "not stand around and bullshit," he said.

"There are a lot of 'bad' people in the industry," he said. "I want to change that."

Sanchez thinks he wants to stay in shrimping, now, and work up to being a captain. He's making good money, and keeping it - he's saving it. If the industry is dying, it's just because it's hard work, Sanchez thinks.

"I came over with a bag of clothes and some change," he said. "If you do it right, you can get your life."

*Correction: Charles Livingston's name was incorrectly stated in this article. We apologize for this error.



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