tampabay.com

Storm extends fishermen's run of bad luck

By BRADY DENNIS
Published October 26, 2005


GOODLAND - Richard McPhillips paced the weathered dock Tuesday behind Kirk's Seafood Market, preparing one of his three commercial fishing boats to return to the Gulf of Mexico and dreading what he would find.

"It could be real bad," said the 45-year-old Collier County native, who has spent most his life fishing grouper, lobster and stone crabs from Key West northward.

Up and down the docks of Florida's west coast, you'll find a lot of angst and anger these days. But you won't find much of a catch.

Even before Hurricane Wilma tore through the gulf this week, fishermen suffered the ravages of deadly Red Tide and two hurricanes, Katrina and Rita.

The state's stone crab season started earlier this month, and many crabbers had just put out hundreds of costly traps. Wilma almost certainly destroyed many of them, dealing the already-troubled fishing industry another blow.

"If I go out and I lost 2,000 traps, that's $45,000 right there," McPhillips said. "We thought this year was going to be good, and then this happened."

A few streets away, 40-year-old Douglas Doxsee knows that struggle. Like many other crabbers, he planned to take care of the damage to his house and return to the gulf today to learn his fate.

"It don't look too good. You just hope for the best," he said, already pondering what he might do if the stone crab season is a bust. "I'll be hauling trees, fixing screen enclosures, fixing docks."

In the small coastal villages that pepper southwest Florida, many residents are second- and third-generation fishermen, including some forced out of business when state voters banned net fishing a decade ago.

Fishing runs deep in Everglades City - the "Stone Crab Capital of the World" - and Chokoloskee just to its south. Wilma flooded both towns in the very water that provides their livelihoods.

Richard Stiglitz, 27, stared out over the floodwaters to his fishing boat at a nearby marina. "I've gotten my brains beat out all summer," he said. But folks like Stiglitz looked forward with cautious optimism and grudging acceptance.

"My family has been fishing for 40 years," he said. "What else am I going to do? It's what I love."

At Kirk's Seafood Market in Goodland, McPhillips was trying to do the same. He said his wife hadn't seen him in 90 days, but he can't stop now. The sea is a jealous and unforgiving companion.

"You're like, "What am I doing? Why am I in this?' " he said. "But you've just got to pick up the pieces and go. It's just the way of fishing. It isn't easy."