Reporter-At-Large Anne H. Oman,

By Anne H. Oman
Reporter-At-Large
May 8, 2022

April 3, 2019 10:30 a.m.

Editor’s Note: Anne H Oman, reporter-at-large, began writing for the Fernandina Observer in January 2013 after relocating to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. After moving to Fernandina, she published “Mango Rains” in 2020. As a former freelance writer, her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle, and other publications.

Anne knows how to research and ask probing questions, and within a short time, she has an excellent article ready for our readers to enjoy. She has covered topics ranging from the Sister March held in Fernandina, trivia with DJ Dave Thrash, and an interview with Jacques Pepin. We appreciate the many gifts Anne brings to our community and thank her  for volunteering with the Fernandina Observer.

 

A river front view of distant shrimp boats.

Here we are in the birthplace of American shrimping industry. We greet visitors with a waterfront Shrimping Museum. Pink and blue larger-than-life statues of shrimp adorn our parks and street corners. Our major civic celebration is the annual Shrimp Fest, complete with a parade and people dressed like crustaceans.

But is it all just nostalgia? Is our historic shrimping industry just a museum piece, or is it a vibrant business that will survive and thrive?

To find out, the Fernandina Observer talked to some of the shrimpers who still ply the nearby waters and to some of the people who sell and serve America’s favorite seafood.

At Dave Cook’s dock at the south end of Front Street, Roy Mc Henry, who was working on his 39-foot shrimper, Queen B, while his aging Golden Retriever, Sweetie, lounged in the cockpit. Capt. McKendree was not optimistic about the state of the local shrimp industry.

“It ain’t doin too good,” he said.

He attributes the downturn to foreign imports and rising fuel prices, but plans to keep on shrimping. He is an ocean shrimper – ocean and river shrimping require separate licenses. He stays out for several days, ices down his catch and sells it “mostly to Jaco” when he returns. Jaco is Jacob Flowers, who runs Fernandina Seafood, a wholesale operation at the north end of Front Street.

“I’ve been shrimping since I fell outta my mama,” he said. “I don’t know nothing else.”

Capt. McKendree is one of about a dozen shrimpers who work out of Fernandina, whose harbor was once home to more than a hundred shrimp boats.

On average, each American eats 4.4 pounds of shrimp each year – more than any other seafood. But 92 percent of the shrimp we eat is imported, with India being the largest single source, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The European Union, which has strict sanitary controls on shrimp imports, often rejects Indian shrimp shipments that contain banned antibiotics. According to the Southern Shrimp Alliance, which represents shrimpers in eight states, including Florida, the shipments Europe rejects often end up in the U.S. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is charged with inspecting shrimp imports. But, due to staff and budget constraints, nearly 99 percent of imported shrimp escapes inspection, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Sonny Whiles. President of the Shrimp Producers’
Association, which represents “mostly river shrimpers” from Nassau County south to St. Augustine, blames imports for depressing prices and making it harder for shrimpers to make a living.

“We used to have about 120 members – now we’re down to 30 or 40,” he said. “Before they started importing, in the nineties, we used to get $3.50 a pound. Then it dropped to $1.05 a pound.”

The wholesale price has since risen some, but not to the levels that prevailed before the import surge.

Mike Adams is one of the river shrimpers represented by the Shrimp Producers Association. From his dock on the Bells River, Capt. Adams, a Callahan native and Viet Nam veteran, plies the network of connecting rivers from Georgia down to Nassau Sound for shrimp. He sells his catch in five-pound bags from his home at the end of a dirt road in Yulee.

During April and May, when the local inland waters are closed to shrimping, he will wash and do some maintenance on his 34-foot Thompson, “Bag Boy” – Capt. Adams was Special Projects Manager for the Terminal Paper Bag Company in Yulee until it left the area. He works 12-hour days, leaving his dock about 5 a.m., and is only allowed to shrimp four days a week, one of the government regulations he chafes against and considers unnecessary.

“We’re overregulated, by the state and federal governments,” he said. “Shrimp is the most renewable resource there is – one female shrimp can lay between half a million and a million eggs.”

He goes after brown shrimp in summer, and white shrimp starting in July and continuing through winter, finding them through “trial and error.”

“The least I ever caught in a day was three or four pounds,” he said. “Once, I caught 3600 pounds in a day.”

In addition to over-regulation and cheap imports, Capt. Adams thinks the greatest threats to local shrimping is pollution – “overbuilding on marshland and failing septic tanks.”

But, despite the challenges, Capt. Adams, 70, has no plans to quit. He’s a second-generation shrimper, and his son, David, is a live-bait shrimper, keeping his catch alive and selling it to bait shops.

Charlie Taylor, owner of Atlantic Seafood at the foot of Ash Street in downtown Fernandina, buys some local shrimp directly from boats and some from a wholesaler, Fernandina Seafood. He defines local shrimp broadly.

Just one of the few shrimp businesses left on Front Street, Fernandina.

“Local shrimpers go where the shrimp are”, he said. “If they hear the catch is better up in Georgia, they go up there. If it’s better in the St. John’s River or around Mayport, they go down there.

“Shrimp are basically the same from Cape Canaveral to North Carolina.”

Most of the local restaurants contacted told the Observer they serve local shrimp exclusively, generally buying it from wholesalers.

“It’s hard to buy directly from boats due to health regulations,” explained Ricky Pigg, the chef-owner of Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro.

“At times – like when there’s a nor’easter — it gets tight,” he said. “I’m on the phone early every morning to suppliers…. Shrimping is the lead industry of our island, and we need to support it. It’s hard to make a living shrimping these days.”

“We use local shrimp when it’s available,” said Shawn Meeks, chef at Amelia Tavern. “It’s not always the most affordable or the most available. We buy it from Fisherman’s Dock in Jacksonville.”

“Absolutely, “ answered Daven Wardynski, Food and Beverage Director at the Omni Amelia Plantation Resort. “We use local shrimp across the board. We source it from Atlantic Seafood downtown.”

Shrimping was the lead industry in Nassau County from 1912 until the Great Depression. (The history of local shrimping is well chronicled in Gray Edenfield’s Amelia Island, Birthplace of the Modern Shrimping Industry). Today, however, tourism and paper products far eclipse shrimping, and the future of the industry is unclear. Does it have a future – or just a past?

Dave Cook, who comes from a family of Fernandina shrimpers and still practices the family trade on his boat, Captain Mama, was hopeful but unsure.

“It has a future if you get new blood, younger people to take it up,” said Capt. Cook. “I’m the last of my kin – my son doesn’t want to be a shrimper. And that’s true with a lot of the old families – their kids don’t want to take it over.”

 

Share this story!

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

9 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Neil Borum
Neil Borum
17 days ago

It’s a shame when the shrimp from India get dumped here and our industry is overregulated. Are you listening Washington?

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes
16 days ago
Reply to  Neil Borum

Mr. Borum, I cannot tell if you want Washington to do more or less regulation. Do you want federal legislators to stop imports from India? Isn’t that more regulation?

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes
16 days ago

Like many industries dependent upon natural resources, shrimping is a good example of a “tragedy of the commons,” a free-for-all that led to massive overharvests and huge declines in shrimp populations. Government isn’t perfect, but they’ve stepped in to save the shrimp population and what small number of shrimpers can still make it. I wish they would do the same to stop the import of toxic shrimp. By local, to keep our shrimping industry alive and for a healthier product, hopefully.

Bill Fold
Bill Fold
16 days ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes

Mr. Tomes you are absolutely correct. You may recall certain restaurants having a run a few years ago on “blackened red fish” which became a fad of sorts for a few years. Of course we are paying for that greed today with the regulation limiting 2 red drum per day per person and they must be between 18 and 27 inches or they must be released. Then there was the fad of restaurants having an “all you can eat” shrimp night on a weekly basis. That same out of control and unregulated greed has decimated red drum and shrimp populations on the east coast and gulf coast. But not to worry, enjoy life while you can because we don’t have too many years left before civilization on the planet totally collapses into chaos.

Nicholas Velvet
Nicholas Velvet
16 days ago

It’s really simple Folks, less talk and more action…..Buy local, know what you are eating and support The Little Guy. Yes, it may cost you abit more but in the end you know what you are getting.

Doug Mowery
Doug Mowery
16 days ago

I agree 100%……..as long as people tell you the truth. One establishment off island advertised Grouper. The bartender I knew (not the owner) told me it was really whiting but customers couldn’t tell the difference. Grouper prices, however…..

Kevin McCarthy
16 days ago

Aquaculture in third world countries is an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions. It is estimated that perhaps 30% of the world’s mangroves have been destroyed for the farming of what they call seafood. Shrimp today come from South and Central America, Southeast Asia, India but the largest producer of shrimp today come from Chine. You would not know this because China transships it’s shrimp to other countries to avoid tariffs. China uses slave labor to produce shrimp!

terry jones
terry jones
16 days ago

wild caught shrimp simply is better tasting & superior to imports & worth the higher price

Perry Anthony
15 days ago

I think it’s important to mention in this story that Italian immigrants Mike Salvador, Joseph Gianino, Andrew Poli, and Salvador Versaggi were the TRUE founding father’s of the shrimping industry.

9
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x