Behind the Scenes
When most people hear the phrase, “A Three-Hour Tour,” the Gilligan’s Island theme song pops into their head; when those same folks think of Fort Myers Beach, images of stunning sunsets, pristine white beaches and legendary bars and restaurants come to mind! The Ostego Bay Foundation, however, offers residents and visitors a third option – the Working Waterfront Tour of the area’s historic shrimping industry each Wednesday through late May from 9 a.m. to Noon!
The 3-hour program for our group of roughly 30 people, from 7 states and several Southwest Florida cities, began at the Foundation’s Marine Science Center at 718 Fisherman’s Wharf on San Carlos Island for check-in, before we proceeded across the street to Bonita Bill’s Waterfront Café Community Room for a brief orientation with Joanne Semmer and Dan Eaton, the Foundation’s President and Educational/Volunteer Coordinator respectively, where we watched a short film on shrimping. We then made the short drive in our own vehicles to the Beach Seafood parking lot on Main Street for the 90-minute working waterfront tour. Following this, we drove back to the Marine Science Center for an hour-long guided tour, including the Touch Tank exhibit.
Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Imported Shrimp
“There are six different shrimp caught in Florida, but the primary catch of our fleet is pink shrimp, known far-&-wide as ‘Pink Gold,’” explained Joanne, “mostly because they have the best taste and bring the highest price.” The Working Waterfront Tour illustrated that this industry is a unique village onto itself, with a net shop, master welders, carpentry shop, engineering and more, all serving the shrimping industry.
Americans are obsessed with shrimp, consuming more than any other seafood, eating twice as much today as 30 years ago. “Unfortunately,” Joanne offered, “most people don’t realize that the United States imports 90% of its shrimp, primarily from China. Educated consumers ask where their shrimp comes from, as restaurants legally must say; many advertise they have Gulf shrimp; but often that is from the Gulf of India! You have no idea how polluted that water is, or what type of antibiotics and preservatives they use – remember: friends don’t let friends eat imported shrimp! Another common misconception is shrimp are fresh and never frozen, but that is not true. All shrimp from our fleet are flash-frozen to preserve their quality and flavor, as boats are out on the water for up to three weeks at a time.”
Dan told us that shrimp are a renewable annual crop, “as each female can lay up to 300,000 eggs each year, so pink shrimp is a sustainable resource. The only restriction on the number of pounds boats can catch is the size of the catch the boats can hold; the old-time ice boats were only 50 feet, but the new freezer ones are 100 feet! Our shrimp come from a process called ‘Wild Caught.’ In our region, pink shrimpers work the area at night, as pink shrimp bury themselves in the sand during the day, so pink shrimpers work at night and sleep during the day, generally coming in to port the week of the full moon.”
Primary shrimping areas are off Fort Myers Beach as well as around Key West by the Florida Bay, though occasionally as far west as Texas, Dan continued. “We also have the deepest Federal channel anywhere from Tampa south, at roughly 16 feet, explaining why the largest shrimp fleet in the entire nation is docked right here! Many people ask if the Red Tide or Blue-Green Algae are concerns, but shrimpers work far enough away from the coast that these are not issues. Shrimp boats generally pull four nets at one time, with nets having catch-&-release devices so endangered sea turtles, most fish, and even small shrimp can easily escape, as the crews only want the large pink shrimp, for ecological as well as economic reasons.”
“In economic value,” said Joanne, “the shrimping industry brings in roughly $100 million to our region, when you combine the catch, boats, semi-trucks, diesel fuel, nets, electronics, restaurants and employees. This is offset by the fact that shrimping is the most dangerous occupation in the United States today. Shrimpers get paid by how many shrimp they catch per trip, after subtracting expenses like diesel fuel and food, with the boat owner receiving a one-third share, the captain one-third, and the crew splitting the final third, with most Fort Myers Beach shrimp sold to the Tampa market.”
Shrimpers go out roughly 15 miles, lowering their outriggers to stabilize the boat. Floats hold the nets open, with a “bag line” at the back. Once deployed, nets lightly skim the bottom, causing the shrimp to jump. When the nets come back on-board, crews release the bag line and as much as 1,000 pounds of shrimp fall onto the deck, where they separate them by hand into the different sizes and species, before flash-freezing and storing them in labeled 40 pound bags.
Working Waterfront Tour
The Working Waterfront Tour started with a brief nature walk, as we experienced ferns, mangroves, sabal palms, marine live oak, buttonwoods and animal habitat near the water. “Mangroves are excellent hurricane protection barriers,” related Dan, “because they break up the rising water and are a natural wind buffer – they is why it is illegal to cut them down.” We visit the welding shop, packinghouse, carpenter shop, marine supplier, net shop, docks, diesel fuel area and store. “There are 40 to 70 boats working out of the San Carlos Island waterfront area,” said Joanne. “This is a designated working waterfront community since 1995, to showcase its business and lifestyle.”
Following the waterfront portion of the tour, we return to the Marine Science Center for a guided tour, learning that the estuary system is where brackish water occurs when the fresh water from the Caloosahatchee & Imperial River meet the salty water from the Gulf of Mexico. This part featured Calusa Indian history, shells, lobsters, crabs, nesting sea turtles, sea stars, horse conch that is Florida’s state shell, clams, sand dollars, sea horses, and dolphin, along with stingrays, flounder, and calico and horseshoe crabs in the Touch Tank.
The program is part museum tour, part nature walk, part working waterfront tour and part educational event. Tours are Wednesdays from late October through late May from 9 a.m. to Noon, at $15 adults and $10 children age 6 & over, with advance reservations necessary at 239-765-8101. Meet at the Marine Resource Center on San Carlos Island, under the Matanzas Pass Bridge, with access off San Carlos Boulevard via Main Street.
Marine Science Center hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with admission $5 adults and $3 students, with children 5 & under free. In addition to the Working Waterfront Tour, the Ostego Bay Foundation offers the Florida Master Naturalist Program, Marine Summer Camp for kids ages 6 to 15, Kids Fishing Derby the Saturday prior to The Fourth of July, the Ostego Bay Oil Spill Co-op Environmental Response Team training program, “Tea By The Sea” Fundraiser in February, and much more. It is a 501c3 non-profit that provides interactive educational experiences for children and adults to personally understand the Southwest Florida marine environment. For more information, call 239-765-8101 or see www.ostegobay.org.
By Gary Mooney