Still swaying from Ian, Florida shrimp are desperate to get back on the water: NPR
Octavio Jones for NPR
Jimmy Driggers, 85, got into the fishing business at age 13. He’s Shrimp in Fort Myers, Florida.
“I was a mullet fisherman, [a] Commercial fishermen in my younger days,” he said.
Driggers walks with a prosthetic leg from an injury he sustained on his boat about a decade ago. It is adorned with a sea lighthouse.
He owns a shrimp boat – the Miz Shirley – named after his wife. It can carry 50,000 pounds of shrimp.
Driggers said the industry has suffered for decades and that he was paid back more in the 1980s than he is today. Fuel prices have skyrocketed.
“You have to produce a lot of shrimp to stay afloat,” Driggers said. “And that’s exactly what we’ve done over the past year – just staying afloat, not making enough to fix something that broke. It was hard.”
Then came Hurricane Ian. It pushed The Miz Shirley half onto a seawall and the other half was left in the water – unusable.
When Ian landed in Florida at the end of September, the shrimp fishery was hit particularly hard. For decades it has been an important part of Fort Myers’ economy – an integral part of the region’s culture and identity. Now it stands still.
“We’ve been contemplating a sell-off, but I don’t want that if we can pull it off,” Driggers said. “If we can lay down the boat and repair it and get it operational again.” He admits that it will take a lot of work.
The Driggers’ house, which lies behind a water canal, has to be demolished. It got four inches of water during the storm and mold is growing everywhere. He and Shirley don’t have flood insurance.
The couple slept in a donated RV on the front lawn. They’re hoping the boat’s insurance will cover enough of the repairs to keep it in business – but they haven’t been able to assess the damage yet.
Despite all this uncertainty, Jimmy has no intention of retiring. Shirley says he wouldn’t leave the water.
“It smells when everything is natural, it doesn’t smell anywhere else here,” Jimmy said. “I’ve been to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, but this is where it smells to me.”
“It’s the smell of the water,” Shirley said, finishing her husband’s sentence.
Since the boats are still on land, there is uncertainty
Down at the Fort Myers Beach shrimp docks, stacks of boats line the seawall and streets. A large hydraulic excavator with scissors tears apart a boat to transport it to the landfill.
Only 45 boats are allowed to fish for shrimp on the Fort Myers coast. They mainly catch pink shrimp – a high-priced delicacy known for its sweet taste and firm flesh.
“All the people who work for us — whether they worked on the boats, the fish house, the market, even me — we don’t have a paycheck anymore,” said Christine Gala, owner of the Trico Shrimp Company. With a fleet of 12 boats, Trico is one of the two major shrimp companies on San Carlos Island in Fort Myers Beach.
“We don’t have a job — other than calling people and asking them to put our boats back in the water,” she said.
None of Gala’s boats are insured. Ever since Ian struck, she’s taken on a leadership role.
Gala has been on the phone constantly, calling crane operators and state officials, asking for help – getting boats back on the water and rebuilding critical infrastructure. The shrimp docks are completely destroyed.
Then the water needs cleaning – it’s filled with dock pilings and other debris.
The shrimp fishery is a small but valuable industry in the United States valued at $37 million. More than 75% of the pink shrimp harvested in the US comes from the west coast of Florida.
Andrew Ropicki, who teaches marine economics at the University of Florida, said the industry has struggled to compete with foreign imports since the 1980s.
But he’s optimistic it can bounce off Ian.
“When federal and state agencies and other stakeholders look at it and see how important this is — one of the last truly functioning waterfronts in a very urbanized area,” Ropicki said.
“I am hopefull. I know people are working and trying to help these people,” he said.
“A Very Strong Community”: Shrimp fishermen remain committed to fishing and Fort Myers
Joanne Semmer is President of the Ostego Bay Marine Science Center, a local environmental nonprofit in Fort Myers. She lives on San Carlos Island, just steps from the commercial fishing docks and working shore. Her neighborhood is full of debris piles and boats – and her house was flooded during Ian.
Semmer said that despite the many challenges – including government regulations and limited docks – the shrimp fishery has adapted to change.
“We have a very strong community — it’s an old fishing village community,” Semmer said. “People live here because they want to be there.”
Ricky Moran is the captain of a shrimp boat called The Galante. He started shrimp fishing with his father when he was nine.
Moran said he finds serenity in the water – and he wants to stay in Fort Myers, where he has lived and worked for 35 years.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Moran said. “I’ll stay here and help clean up. I love Fort Myers Beach.”
At the docks, 58-year-old Moran makes his way through the rubble to where The Galante landed. The boat lies on its side, wedged between two other large vessels, next to a badly damaged RV site.
Moran not only lost his boat but also his home. He lived in The Galante and weathered the storm with his girlfriend on board.
But for now, Moran wants to be on land. The memories of the storm still haunt him. Unable to return to his boat, Moran now lives in a tent at the marina and is applying for FEMA’s unemployment plan.
He’s stuck in limbo, waiting – like dozens of others – to be back on a boat in the industry that offers not only his home but his way of life. He gets emotional as he talks about why he’s staying.
“I loved this thing,” Moran said. “I’m a professional fisherman – I’m Captain Ricky. I could go. Go to Mobile [Alabama] and get a boat – but I want this to come back.”
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