Portraits of the modern shrimper
San Carlos Island is home to one of the few remaining working waterfronts in Florida, and one of the last shrimping fleets in the country.
The shrimping docks used to house hundreds of boats, but now, two businesses and a handful of independent fishers are left to sustain the industry.
During a recent community visioning meeting, Lee County asked San Carlos Island stakeholders to discuss what made the island special – and almost every focus group said it was important to preserve and promote the commercial working waterfront, a piece of the county’s culture.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Fort Myers Beach Lions Club Shrimp Festival, a favorite almost-holiday for the locals of Fort Myers Beach and San Carlos Island.
Here is a few of the people who call shrimping their livelihood, working in the industry we are celebrating.
Henry Gore, 57, didn’t grow up in a fishing family. His father was a doctor.
But Gore’s high school friend came home one summer driving a new truck. He’d spent school break out on the boat.
“I went to college for two days,” Henry Gore said.
That was it. It was the shrimping life for him.
“It’s good money,” he said.
Gore really got into the business when he was 22, and he’s stuck with it ever since. He’s one of only a few independent shrimpers left. He unloads at Erickson & Jensen, but he owns and runs his own boat.
“It’s about money and independence,” he said. “Every now and then, you see something cool.”
While out on the water, Gore gets to watch dolphins play and sharks prowl.
He met his wife, Tracey, while she was manager at Gulf Marine Ways. They’ve been married almost 19 years.
“My mom was thrilled,” she said, laughing. “His dad’s a doctor, you’d think that’s what your mom would want. But no she was excited I was marrying a shrimper.”
Tracey manages Henry’s bookkeeping and paperwork.
Henry is gone 20 to 40 days while out, then returns for a week or week and a half before going back out. But Tracey knew what she was getting into while they were dating and later married.
“I don’t know anything different,” she said. “But, I always have my family close by.”
When she was pregnant with their daughter Lexi, though, she said she used to cry when he left. But luckily, she had her family to help her with her daughter and Joe, Henry’s son.
“I hate leaving the dock,” Henry said. “Once you leave, you’re gone from everything. But after a couple days out, you put it behind you and work.”
Even now, when his children are in their teens and twenties, he has a hard time leaving.
“Everything’s in dog years,” he said. “You leave and your kids grow up while you’re gone.”
Charles Livingston has shrimp in his blood.
Figuratively, and in a sense, literally. Three shrimp crawl along his neck and shoulders in black ink, marking him a shrimper.
He was born to do the work. His family used to shrimp in the St. John’s River in northern Florida back when it was legal. His grandfather on his mother’s side leased 50 oyster beds from the state to farm.
Livingston said he and his father would sometimes come to Fort Myers Beach to fish, and when he was a teenager, he moved to this side of the state.
“I needed to get away from Jacksonville,” he said. He was starting to get into trouble with the law, so his parents brought him here at 19, and he started working at Island Packing.
“I hit the docks, I started working, never left,” he said.
Now, at 58, he works a boat for Erickson & Jensen. He’s thought about getting his own boat, he said, but then he’d have to “babysit:” find a crew, keep the boat in order.
Livingston can often be found barefoot, and he doesn’t change his clock for daylight savings time. His schedule is dependent on Mother Nature. When he’s working on the water, he just has to wait for the sun to set, then he goes to work. When the sun rises, he goes to sleep.
“Mother Nature does its own time change,” he said. “I live sun up, sun down.”
Livingston says he stays out from quarter moon to quarter moon, unless he’s not catching well.
The hunt is one of his favorite parts of the job. He chooses to drag his nets in places that other shrimpers might think it’s too much work to catch.
But besides the hunt, there’s another aspect of the job that appeals to him: he’s mostly alone.
“I like the isolation. You ain’t around humans,” he said. “There’s two things. You can’t fish and can’t live on land. When you go out fishing, land doesn’t exist.”
Roger Schmall came from Tennessee 36 years ago looking to do something different with his life.
He ended up at Trico Shrimp Company, then six years later he ended up buying his own boat.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “There’s always a challenge.”
He tried other types of fishing, such as catching crabs or banded fish like grouper and snapper, but he ended up coming back to shrimping.
His friend, Bob Baldi, helped him buy his boat.
“He showed me how to work for myself,” he said. “I have my own schedule.”
Weather always poses a challenge, but the bigger fight comes with government regulation, he said. Keeping up with the newest set of rules that cuts into profits isn’t easy.
Schmall is one of the few independent shrimpers left. He remembers when there were nearly 12,000 boats on the water. Now, it’s down to a thousand or so, he said.
It’s a hard job in more than one way. Last year, Schmall broke his back in three places on his boat. He can’t do as much now as he used to, he said.
He’s also got a family at home. He was married and had a daughter, Nicole, with his first wife. Nicole was one of the Shrimp Festival queens, winning the title in 2005. His boat, the Kayden Nicole, is named for his oldest daughter and her son. Schmall divorced, and remarried, and had more kids, he said.
His wife, Samantha, is getting used to him being gone. But it’s harder on his younger kids: he’s got a stepdaughter, Makayla, 10, Ryley, 7, River, 3, and Remington, 10 months.
These days, with his family waiting, Schmall only stays out 10 to 20 days. When he gets back, River attaches herself to his leg. Last week, she tagged along to the docks after he got back in.
“(River) knows how to use a phone, she calls me all the time on my satellite phone,” he said. “She doesn’t understand, when I’m gone, I’m gone.”
Rick and Dale Kalliainen
The Kalliainens are one of the oldest fishing families in the area. It’s an industry that’s been passed down in their heritage.
Richard, Sr., is 84 and still casting nets. He sold his shrimp boat, got bored, and is now looking to buy a new one, his sons said.
Brothers Rick and Dale have always known they’d be shrimpers. Rick, 64, stopped going out about 10 years ago. Now, he’s the fish house manager for Trico.
“I did other work, but I didn’t like it,” he said. “I don’t know. I can’t tell you why. I just liked shrimping.”
He remembers back when he was out on the boat, only the captain slept “up top” in a real bed. The rest of the crew holed up in the area called the “forepeak” at the front of the boat, which stays hot because of its proximity to the engine.
Showers used to be hoping for a good rain, but these days, shrimpers have access to hot showers, satellite TV and even air conditioning within the boat’s interiors.
He misses being out on the water, but now he gets to spend more time at home.
Dale, 57, is still on the water with his boat, Nightwind. He likes the job for the most part.
“Once you get out there, it’s nice. You get away from everything on land,” Dale said.
He usually goes out for about three weeks to the area near Key West known as the Dry Tortugas. The shrimp catches have been extra good this year.
While Rick works for Trico in the fish house, the Kalliainens are independent fishers. They used to own their own mini-fleet of eight boats, but are down to three these days.
“We’re independent, we always have been,” Rick said. “Our father is very independent.”
Dale jokes he’ll get off the boat and take over the fish house when Rick retires.
Rick has a son, but he’s not pursuing a future in fishing. He’s not alone: there aren’t many younger men joining the shrimping work force.
“You used to have people walking off the street asking for a job, you never see that now,” Dale said. “That’s what’s hard, there’s very little new blood coming in.”
James Driggers and Boris Bell
“I made my first trip in 1952. I loved it,” James Driggers, 80, said.
That is, once he got used to it. He spent the first three months being seasick, he said.
He’s born and raised in Southwest Florida. He grew up in Charlotte County; now he lives in Pine Island. He stayed out on the boat until about eight years ago.
Shrimping can be a dangerous field; Driggers’ lighthouse-themed prosthetic leg is proof. In 2003, while he was 60 miles off the coast of Texas, the anchor line wrapped around Driggers’ ankle and hauled him upside down. It took the Coast Guard two hours to get to him, he said.
It was about 7:30 a.m.on Aug. 27 – it’s a day he won’t forget.
“The good Lord was with me that day,” he said.
Driggers still owns his boat, the Miz Shirley. He’s also an independent shrimper. These days, however, he’s handed over working the boat to Boris Bell.
Bell, 52, came to the U.S.from Nicaragua. He said working for the docks was his first job, and he never left.
“I started here 28 years ago. I started as a deck hand, now I’m a captain,” Bell said. “When people think shrimper, sometimes they think drug addict. But not everybody is that way.”
Bell became a U.S.citizen, a feat of which he’s proud. He also loves his job.
“For me, I feel peace,” he said about being on the water.
Bell has three kids at home with his wife, Gina Garth: Mario, 17, Boris, Jr., 14, and Brock, 2.
His two older boys don’t mind his being gone as much. They have their own lives now, he said. But Brock has a harder time with it.
“My two year old, it breaks my heart,” he said. “But I hot to leave. You have to bring home the dollar.”
Driggers said this year’s catching has been good, but the second a shrimper starts making a profit “we have to watch out for Uncle Sam,” he said. Shrimping used to be lucrative, but he feels government regulation have lessened the money to be made in the industry.
Neither Driggers’ son or Bell’s sons plan to join the industry – although, Bell said if his boys get into trouble he’ll be taking them out on the boat to work.
“We’re lucky to have Boris,” Driggers said. “On Sundays, Boris and his family get up to serve the Lord. He’s a good family man.”