Coverage: Gulf Coast Oil Spill
NAPLES — Be it crabbing, shrimping or angling, fishing for a living takes a special kind of person.
“You have to love what you do for a living,” said Everglades City resident Steve Huff, a sports fishing guide and charter boat captain for 42 years.
Nowadays, commercial and recreational fishermen are facing a lot of pressure, he said.
Between hurricanes trashing the shallows, the economy tanking and the recent cold winter, Huff said the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could be another nail in the coffin for those who make their living off Southwest Florida’s waters.
“The oil would be tragic,” Huff said, adding he has friends in Louisiana who fear that the oil will destroy their livelihoods.
“It is something people can do without,” he said.
Fishing has always played a major role in Southwest Florida life.
David Southall, curator of education at the Collier County Museum, said fishing in the area dates back 2,000 years, to the height of the Calusa Indian civilization.
“They enjoyed the riches of the probably most productive fisheries in North America, here in Southwest Florida,” Southall said. “The fishing was so fantastic, so abundant, that they were able to develop into a developed hierarchical society without farming for food.”
That went on until about the 1500s when the Spanish arrived in Florida and brought European diseases with them.
Between the 1600s and the mid-1800s, several commercial fisheries came and went in Southwest Florida.
However, he said commercial fishing in general didn’t begin to take off as a big business until the advent of ice in the 1890s.
“You needed commercial ice houses to really make it work,” Southall said. “Because once you have ice houses, you can catch fish and keep them from spoiling.”
When icehouses opened up in towns like Everglades City, Fort Myers and Naples, commercial fishing in Southwest Florida began its Golden Age — from 1900 to 1960.
“Around the turn of the century you begin to see serious fisheries,” Southall said, adding that small fish packing houses, packing anything from clams and fish to shrimp or crab, sprouted up and began to ship seafood, first using ships and then railroads to take them to other parts of the country.
The fishing industry became a big part of the area’s economy, Southall said, so that by 1960 roughly a quarter of Collier’s population _ almost 16,000 _ was in some way involved in fishing.
But while the fishing business took off, David Crawford with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council said people on land began to mess with the ecosystem that provided the plentiful catches.
“The urbanization, the way it was done with sprawl, badly damaged the estuaries,” he said. “Now we are starting to spend a lot of time to put it back to where it was. It will never be how it was for the Calusa, but you can repair it enough for it to be a much healthier system.”
But as the area fisheries have degraded, there is less to catch and many fishermen go out of business, said Crawford while recalling the major fleet of fishing boats that used to call San Carlos Island home.
In 1990, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued 50,300 salt water commercial fishing licenses across the state, including 421 in Collier and 2,044 in Lee.
In 2009, however, with Collier and Lee counties boasting populations in the hundreds of thousands, the Conservation Commission issued 160 salt water commercial fishing licenses in Collier and 360 in Lee County. A total of 31,737 were issued in Florida.
The decline will continue, said James Wall with the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board.
“There is going to be a 26.4 percent decline in that industry (from 2008 to 2016),” said Wall, director of business development for the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board.
“Obviously the commercial fishing industry has been in decline over the past years,” Wall said. “And much of it has to do with us trading with other countries.”
NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement, really hurt commercial fishermen in the states, Wall said.
“These are some of the difficulties faced when an industry suffers a market competitive downturn, and individuals are forced to look at different occupations to make a living,” he said. “As long as we are doing trade with other countries, they are going to be able to do it less expensively. It’s what drives the market.”
On top of that, back in 1995, a ban on net fishing in shallow waters put a damper on the local commercial fishing industry.
“It was very controversial, because people had made their living that way from generation to generation,” Wall said.
Part of the net ban included retraining of fishermen to do a different occupation, including clam farming.
“At its peak there were 30 of these clam farms throughout Southwest Florida. Most were around Pine Island,” Wall said, adding that clam farmers would travel from Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties to farm their 2-acre underwater clam plots.
Others gave it a go in different businesses, he said.
Wall said awareness of the fishing industry’s issues have been heightened by the recent oil spill.
“We don’t really know the full impact this will have in Florida,” he said. “It’s difficult, because you are dealing with people that have been earning their living as second- or third-generation fisherman.”
And in a town like Everglades City that remains true, Huff said.
“Crabbing here has traditionally been a mainstay of this economy,” said Huff, who called it the hardest-working profession. “It’s a very, very hard way to make a living.”
For now, the charter boat captain said he is trying to stay positive and hoping that the oil spill gets taken care of quickly.
“I can’t believe that we would have that much bad luck,” Huff said with a laugh.