“The natives here appear to eat a huge abundance of fish, clams and oysters and not much else.” That was a sage observation, translated from Spanish, by Juan Ponce de Leon when he and other conquistadors encountered the Calusa Indians on Marco Island in 1513.
Since then, the ecosystem that surrounds the coastal Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands has formulated and nurtured some of the best claming, crabbing and charter fishing anywhere. The extensive mangrove forests and shallow water estuaries that range between Naples and the Florida Keys embrace Marco and the Isles of Capri with one of the fastest marine turnover lifecycles and one of the most nutrient rich ecosystems in the world.
When the Doxee and Burnham clam factories were thriving on opposite ends of Marco Island and harvesting every clam that could be piled aboard a boat, the Islanders of the early 20th century worked hard to render canned clams and clam bullion for the anxious customers on the opposite end of the Atlantic Coast Railway Line.
During World War I and into the 1920s, the Marco clam factories would send out raking and dredging teams to harvest clams as the cooking fires in the factories were stoked. With all the revenue and activity the clam factories were bringing to Marco, early citizens named Marco Bay — Factory Bay, and Marco Island — Collier City.
As the smoke from the clam factories belched into the sky, a way of life flourished for the early Islanders, but as the decades passed, the claming industry would wane as crabbing and net fishing would cast new angles for the years to come.
When Joe Weiss in Miami discovered that stone crabs were edible after cooling, a new industry was born and Marco and Everglades City once again began to thrive. Today, the rituals of stone crabbing in Southwest Florida are a way of life. Even before the month of September arrives, the folks at Capri Fisheries in Goodland and on the Isles of Capri are busy preparing stone crab traps and marker buoys for the upcoming crabbing season. With the arrival of mid-October, the stone crab traps are set and at the stroke of midnight on the 15th, the modern day fisher folk that earn their living harvesting Neptune’s bounty are as busy as the former clam factory workers until May 15.
As the stone crabbing industry grew, another maritime market began to emerge in the form of commercial mullet fishing. During the 1970s and 80s, bird-dog mullet skiffs were a common sight on the Marco waters as Neptune’s bounty was once again brought ashore. Encircling gill nets were the means to harvest striped mullet in great numbers, but conservancy concerns eventually made gill netting illegal. Marine biologists from the Florida Marine Research Institute have reported the population of striped mullet has more than doubled in the last six years because of the statewide ban of gill nets.
Before the ban, mullet fishing was a another way of life and another episode of in Marco’s maritime history, but now with much more mullet than ever before, a healthier ecosystem is on the rise because the mullet eat algae and are a key element in the marine food chain.
As a modern, maritime Marco emerges into the 21st century, the fishing fleets that ply the near coastal waters follow in the nautical wakes and traditions of yesteryear, but have a much more stringent attitude toward the conservancy of maritime resources.
The stone crabbers carefully measure the size of the crabs that are to be harvested, and egg bearing females are returned to the seafloor. Only one claw of the stone crab is taken at a time allowing the live crab to grow another claw during the following year.
The backwater boats that cruise the shallows are limited with seasonal restrictions on the type and size of fish harvested and the charter boats that venture offshore are equally regulated. Because of these regulations, fishing in The Ten Thousand Islands is on the rise with more boats than ever voyaging out to harvest Neptune’s bounty.
Among the offshore charter captains of Marco Island are Scott Ray of the Carole Ann 2 and Phil Ridge of the Blue Runner. Both captains are located dockside at the Rose Marco River Marina and guide excursions offshore to the many artificial reefs and shipwreck sites that are thriving with fish.
“We’re not out to take people on a boat ride and make them seasick,” Capt. Ridge explains. “And we’re not in the ‘get all the fish we can meat market business.’ We are the type of charter boats that reflect the Marco Island lifestyle.”
“That’s right,” agrees Capt. Ray. “Our philosophy is to make the best experience we can for our customers in a way that the offshore trip is so fun everyone comes back year after year. Folks come back to Marco year after year, so why not have visitors come out on a yearly fishing charter with a captain they consider a friend?”
“We don’t take folks out when we know it’s going to be rough.” Capt. Ridge continues. “We know that would make for just a one-time charter. Our focus is to teach families to fish, and create a learning experience that will last a lifetime. That doesn’t happen when the conditions are not right and the weather is rough.”
“Our goal,” Capt. Ray adds, “is to take folks out on the water for a day of fishing they will never forget and to catch enough fish to take home for a fish-fry.”
Both Capt. Ridge and Ray hold Master Merchant Marine Officers licenses from the United States Coast Guard.
All of Marco’s maritime traditions and the harvesting of Neptune’s bounty can be tastefully experienced at the first annual Marco Island Seafood Festival on March 28 and 29. The two-day event will be held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free parking will be available at the Marco Health Care facility and transportation will ferry attendees along Collier Boulevard. Musicians and local bands will entice the seafood festival with live entertainment.
Located at Marco’s Veterans Community Park, the annual event will feature favorite fish and seafood from local waters and highlight Marco’s very own seafood companies that are the modern day purveyors of Neptune’s bounty.
The first annual Marco Island Seafood Festival is the brainchild of Stan Niemczyk, Marco Island Sunrise Rotary president, and is the beginning celebration of Marco’s maritime traditions to be shared by future generations.
When asked about local fishing and what seafood treats the Paradise Shrimp Company of Marco Island would provide for the festival, Scott Young replied with a smile. “We are looking forward to providing some of the freshest stone crab claws and all natural peel-and-eat shrimp anywhere.”
If You Go...
Marco Island Seafood Festival
March 28 and 29, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Free parking at the Marco Health Care facility; transportation will ferry attendees along Collier Boulevard.