After Hurricane Ian, reckoning looms for Florida fishermen

Hurricane Ian's damage to the South Florida fishing fleet was extensive.

Casey Streeter lost everything to the monstrous winds and storm surge of Hurricane Ian when it roared over the southwest part of the U.S. state of Florida.

His Island Seafood Market in Matlacha, his home in Saint James City on Pine Island, his retail market on Sanibel Island are all gone. It'sthe same for most of his commercial fishing colleagues and neighbors in the region, which was battered by the hurricane’s landfall on 28 September, 2022.

“We are devastated here,” Streeter said. “Four out of five fish houses in Pine Island are gone. The shrimp fleet is gone. Nowhere to unload. No docks are here. Everybody went out of business at one time. We worked ten years and it was gone in ten hours. We're dealing with impossible things.”

Despite his overwhelming losses, Streeter vowed he wouldn’t give up on the local commercial fishing industry. He's got four grouper boats damaged by the storm he's hoping he can fix, and a seafood truck he's been using to ferry food, ice, and other supplies from the mainland to Pine Island now that a temporary bridge has been erected.

“We're gonna build back,“ Streeter said. “This is the next chapter of our island. It's important for our area to have a fishery. It'll be the people here that bring it back. We're not going to let this go away.”

Nick Ruland is not ready to quit, either. His restaurant and dock on Fort Myers Beach were badly damaged, along with three of his six fishing boats that harvested grouper, snapper, and stone crab. He's waiting for power to be restored and corpse-detecting dogs to complete their searches of the area before beginning what he expects will be process of rebuilding.

“I'm going to do it one way or the other,” he said. “I can't really guess on when. I hope to be partially open within a month.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Division of Marine Fisheries Management said in a statement it is conducting a rapid damage assessment and anticipates making a request for a federal fisheries disaster declaration from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. It's not known exactly how the relief program might work, but Andrew Ropicki and Scott Jackson of Florida Sea Grant said after Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle in 2018, the program “included funding in the form of direct payments to impacted charter/for hire operators, aquaculture farmers, commercial fishermen, and commercial wholesale dealers, and reimbursements for improvement of uninsured repair to wholesale facilities and marina facilities.”

“However, it is important to note that the fishery disaster declaration and relief assistance program process involves multiple steps and does not provide short-term relief, [and that] payouts usually occur several years after the disaster,” they wrote in a blog post. “Industry members in need of immediate funding should look to other programs.”

The Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance has posted a list of agencies, organizations, and services available to fishermen impacted by the hurricane on its website.

While most of the post-Ian recovery operation has focused on southwest Florida, that region was not alone in experiencing damaging impacts from the storm. In the Keys and South Florida, the spiny lobster fishery took a big hit. According to Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, Ian's 120-mile-per-hour winds may have destroyed up to 80 percent of the 50,000 to 70,000 lobster traps deployed in the Gulf north of the Keys approaching the height of the harvest season.

Moreover, Kelly said, rogue storm surge waves that battered the Miami area moved or destroyed an estimated 20,000 more traps. He said the storm's aftermath likely will disrupt the start of stone crab season, set to begin Oct. 15. Keys fishermen, Kelly wrote, will join in requesting an economic disaster declaration from the federal government.

As if the current misery weren't bad enough, Ian is expected to leave some harmful environmental impacts in its wake.

Early reports from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection say southwest Florida' Piney Point waste-disposal site storing millions of gallons of phosphorus- and nitrogen-laden water from a defunct fertilizer plant seems to have held up to Ian's battering. But fishermen, environmentalists, and others are now worried about contamination of local waters from mountains of hurricane debris, discharge from leaky sewers and septic tanks, and other storm runoff.

“There may be some long-term impacts on some of the stocks that rely on inshore waters for spawning and development, [such as] gag and red grouper, so we'll need to keep a close eye on those stocks. They're already at dangerously low levels,” Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance Deputy Director Eric Brazer wrote in an email. "We'll also have to keep a close eye on red snapper – a stock that was once thought to be effectively invincible and is now showing declines.”

Red tide also is a big worry. Fishermen still shudder at the devastation wrought by more than a year of the widespread toxic bloom that killed fish, sea birds, and manatees following Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Eric Schmidt, a 40-year veteran Fort Myers Beach charter and commercial fisherman, said he, for one, has had enough.

“I'm in shock. People throw around the term 'war zone.’ Destruction everywhere. We don't have bullets flying, but it looks like Ukraine,” Schmidt said. “It's gonna take five years. There's nothing left ... I mean nothing. I'm out of a job. I may relocate to another part of the state.”

Fort Myers Beach, Florida-based Erickson and Jensen Seafood, which handles USD 10 million (EUR 10.3 million) in shrimp annually, suffered damaaged wharves and a flooded office and processing facility, and nearby Trico Shrimp Co. also suffered damage, according to the Associated Press. Ericksen and Jensen Fleet Manager Jesse Clapham, who oversaw the company's dozen shrimp trawlers, said the cost of repairs might not be worth it.

"These boats go out and catch USD 60,000 to USD 70,000 [EUR 61,800 to EUR 72,100] worth of shrimp a month, but it costs USD 30,000 to USD 50,000 [EUR 30,900 to EUR 51,500] to put fuel on them and groceries and supplies, and then you've got to pay the crew. And sometimes these boats' [catches] don't even pay for everything," he said. "We take money from one boat and get another boat going and send 'em back fishing just to keep going."

Nevertheless, seafood companies are working to get the trawlers back fishing as soon as possible, according to Karen Bell, co-owner of Cortez, Florida-based wholeseale seafood dealer A.P. Bell Fishing Company.

“The seafood demand will increase because there’s less of it being produced out of the Gulf [of Mexico]," she told Channel 8 News.

Reporting by Sue Cocking

Photo courtesy of Casey Streeter


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