Boats lost by Florida shrimpers, houses over-powered; I hope to bring the battered fleet back to sea

The seafood industry in southwest Florida is racing against time and the elements to save what’s left of a major shrimp fleet — and a way of life — that has been battered by Hurricane Ian.

The fierce wind and powerful surge from the storm tossed a few dozen shrimp boats onto the docks and homes along the harbor on Estero Island. Jesse Clapham, who oversees a dozen trawlers for a major seafood company in Fort Myers Beach, is trying to get the boats back to sea as quickly as possible – before their engines, winches and pulleys seize up from being out of the water.

One of the two shrimp boats that did not sink or be knocked ashore went out on Sunday, but the victory was small compared to the task at hand.

“There are 300 people working for us and they are all unemployed at the moment. I’m sure they’d rather just mow it all down and build a giant condo here, but we’re not going to give up,” said Clapham, who manages the fishing fleet at Erickson and Jensen Seafood, which he says manages 10 million dollars in shrimp per year.

The company’s fractured docks, flooded office and processing house are located on Main Street next to another major seafood company, Trico Shrimp Co. There, a crane lifted the outrigger from the stranded shrimp boat Aces & Eights _ the first step to getting it back in the water. Across the yard, huge Kayden Nicole and Renee Lynn sat side by side in the parking lot, stern to bow.

Shrimp is the biggest piece of Florida’s seafood industry, worth nearly $52 million in 2016, according to state statistics. Fort Myers Gulf of Mexico Shrimp has been shipped across the United States for generations.

Now the question is when fishing can resume and whether there will still be experienced crews to operate the boats when that happens.

Deckhand Michele Bryant not only lost her job when the boat where she worked ran aground, she lost her home. Shrimp fishing crews are at sea for up to two months at a time, she said, so members often don’t have homes ashore.

“I have nowhere to stay,” she said. “I live in a tent.”

Richard Brown’s situation is just as precarious. A citizen of Guyana who was working on a boat departing from Miami when Ian hit southwest Florida, Brown weathered the storm on one of four boats that were tied together along a seawall in the harbor.

“We tried to weather the storm. The lines were bursting. We kept replacing them, but when the tide turned everyone was down,” he said.

There’s no way to catch shrimp on a boat surrounded by land, so Brown keeps busy scraping barnacles from the Gulf Star’s hull. “It’s like it’s in drydock,” he said _ but he doesn’t know what to do now any more than at the height of the storm.

“It was terrifying – the worst experience,” said Brown, who is more than 2,160 miles (3,480 kilometers) from his home in South America. “I was just thinking, ‘You could abandon ship.’ But where are you going?”

Seafood fleets along the Gulf Coast are used to being wiped out by hurricanes. Katrina hit industry from Louisiana to Alabama in 2005, and the seafood business in South Louisiana is still recovering from the punch of Hurricane Ida last year. But this part of Florida hasn’t seen a storm like Ian in a century, leaving people wondering what will happen next.

Dale Kalliainen and his brother followed their father into the shrimp business and own the trawler Night Wind, which landed in the middle of a mobile home park near a bridge. He said high fuel prices and cheap imported seafood had eaten away at the industry long before Ian did the worst.

“Before there were 300 boats in this port and now there are maybe 50,” he said. “It will probably be years before this company is on the verge of getting back to what it was.”

Clapham, the 47-year-old fleet manager, has spent his whole life on shrimp boats. The industry is already operating at a slim margin and needs help to recover from Ian, he said.

“These boats go out and catch $60,000, $70,000 worth of shrimp a month, but it costs $30,000 to $50,000 to put fuel and groceries and supplies in there, and then you have to pay the ‘crew. And sometimes those boats (the catches) don’t even pay for everything,” he said. “We take the money from one boat and send another boat out and send them back fishing just to carry on.”

Photo: Shrimp boat workers Shawn Shelton, left, and Doug Fundak have been living in a tent since the boat they were working on ran aground and Shelton’s trailer was destroyed, on San Carlos, next to Fort Myers Beach. The couple, along with Shelton’s dog Lucky, rode through the storm on the boat as floodwaters and wind blew it ashore and then into an apartment building. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

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Earnest A. Martinez