Net by net, lives spent at sea

For veteran shrimpers, it’s a hard but often profitable life that hooks them. But it’s getting harder.

Published August 12, 2006

Beyond the railing of this little shrimp trawler called the Sea Hawk, there’s a narrow ledge where forgotten sea grass and scallops sometimes land to dry.

When shrimper Jacqui Dion is speeding into the gulf, putting more and more miles between herself and land, she likes to loop a leg over the rail and perch right there on the ledge. A little turbulence and she could land in the water with the sharks and jellyfish, nothing but white rubber shrimp boots to protect her.

There’s only one other person on this boat — her captain, 40-year-old Chris Bobb — and they’re more friends than co-workers. Together, they sweat and smoke and swear all night.

That’s why she likes being among the dwindling number of shrimpers working out of the docks of Hernando Beach. Out here, her only boss is the water.

Dion, 38, and her captain are a dying breed.

For years, Hernando County’s boats have netted the state’s largest amounts of bait shrimp, the live commodity prized by diehard anglers.

Last year the county boasted 430,303 pounds, most of it landing at the docks at Calienta Street before being trucked across the state.

But even in this relatively prosperous area, outside pressures are pushing some out of the business and forcing others to reconsider their way of life.

In the weeks after Tropical Storm Alberto blew through, close to 30 percent of the deckhands quit to do something else.

Bobb and Dion, for their part, are just hanging on.

Shrimping has always been an uncertain business, with its risky night treks in rock-riddled waters and unpredictable dry spells. Shrimpers set out two to a boat, or even solo, and for 14 hours their only outside communication might be by radio.

The rising cost of fuel, not to mention upkeep on the boat, doesn’t help. And then there’s the threat of the tourist industry, which could buy out the prime dock space and exile shrimpers to nowhere.

Some veterans also fear the implications of a newly constructed shrimp farm just a three-hour drive away from the docks.

But it’s a hard business to leave. Many boat owners are hooked in by the purchases they made years ago. About 15 people own the 53 shrimp boats docked at Hernando Beach, and they typically split their money with captains and deckhands.

Those men and women say good money keeps them coming back each night. In a good week, Bobb can make $900. During bad weeks, he takes in nothing, and sometimes has to scrounge for hourly labor. But he always returns to the Sea Hawk.

“It’s not the greatest thing,” Bobb said, “but I make so much money I’m stuck in it.”

He plans his life from night to night. He has to. It’s the way his job works.

On a recent August evening, a little after 6:30 p.m., Bobb steered the puttering boat toward grass beds 12 miles from Homosassa. The 36-foot boat traced three perfect white wake lines in the smooth water.

“There’s a serenity you get out here that you don’t get anywhere else,” said Dion, 38.

She tried many other jobs — waiting tables, welding, painting — but a boyfriend brought her onto this boat for the first time four years ago.

She dumped the boyfriend but kept shrimping.

Like many other small-time shrimpers, she likes the independence. Among many in the business, shrimping is known as a last stop for those who don’t like bowing to bosses in more traditional workplaces.

Bobb once took a regular job on a cruise boat. He hoped to someday captain it. But when they told him to clean the toilets, he quit.

“Most of us are unruly people who don’t like authority,” he said.

Dion smiled. “We’re not exactly social butterflies,” she said.

Around 8 p.m., Bobb pulled out the day’s newspaper and asked Dion for his horoscope. They’re both Libra.
She read it aloud: “If you feel a friend is encouraging you to go beyond your comfort level in something, listen to that tiny voice inside you.”

Five nights a week, the pair risk their lives in the water. Anything could happen. Lightning. Harsh storms. Engine failure.

“Ain’t no two nights the same,” Bobb said.

He stopped at the fishing grounds. In the darkness, the faraway lights of a few boats could be seen. Otherwise, they seemed to be all alone in the gulf. There was a half moon in the sky, circling birds and not much else.
One trawler swept close by. It looked like a duplicate boat. A man in orange overalls, like Bobb. A woman in a black tank top, like Dion. Bright lights glaring over the back deck.

Bobb and Dion tied the bottoms of funnel-shaped nets, then lowered them into the water with frames that looked like giant combs and hair rollers. The metal teeth run through the sea grass 8 feet below, and the rollers round up reluctant prey.

Forty minutes later, Bobb pulled on levers to hoist the nets, round as pregnant bellies. He and his deckhand have an identical tank station, one for each net.

Bobb and Dion released the catch into their bubbling tanks: shrimp as long as pencils and curled into nickel-sized balls, clinging sea horses, slippery flounder, slick red sponges, moray eels, scallops, sea cucumbers, blowfish and sea grass, too.

As if preparing soup, they stirred the tanks with giant picks, then spread the mixture onto white picking tables to separate the wheat from the chaff. Rapid-fire fingers flung the shrimp one after one into an empty tank.
Neither shrimper wears gloves, though Bobb has goggles to protect his left eye — he lost the other in an accident aboard a shrimp boat 14 years ago.

“Now that I got a son, I can’t let something happen to me,” said Bobb, who has a 6-year-old. “I think about shrimping a little different since I had a kid.”

He methodically shook through the sea grass as Dion wildly flicked shrimp and saltwater into the air. He swept the chaff over the side, and porpoises snatched up the chum.

Dion and Bobb like to compete. Usually she picks through her net first. Not on this night.

“Got more?” Bobb asked.

“Yes,” Dion said. “Smart a--.”

“I’m just trying to help. I could sit down and smoke a cigar.” Bobb dipped his net into her tank.

When they finished picking through their net’s catch, they started all over again.

Dion peered back at the clock and frowned. It was 10:25 p.m., and they were on their second tow. She knows it’s been a long night when she has to wear sunglasses on the ride back in. She hoped she wouldn’t have to on this night. Still, each tow was bringing up a lot of shrimp — more than they had seen any time in the past two months.

The transparent creatures swirled in circles in the water, and soon the tanks were full of the live bait destined to be trucked to stores around the state. The huge catch means several hundred dollars for each of them. They take 45 percent of the profits, while the Sea Hawk’s owner keeps the rest.

At 1:45 a.m., she and Bobb pulled up their nets and began to pick out fish stuck between the green weave.
Bobb sat in the driver’s seat for the journey back and popped open a Budweiser.

But as Dion picked through the soup of shrimp, she noticed the water was too still. Something was wrong with the impeller that pumps oxygen into the tank. The shrimp could die in minutes. She called to Bobb.

He looked at her. “Ah, don’t have a meltdown, Jacqui,” he said. “I can’t have a meltdown, you can’t have a meltdown.”

“I’m melting.” Dion dropped her arms to her sides. “I’m melting.”

Bobb and Dion lifted the cover of the huge diesel motor. Bobb descended into the bilge.

Sweating from the motor’s heat, he knew that even if he could fix the impeller, the shrimp had begun to die in the last few minutes. Covered with black grime, he clambered back on deck.

He and Dion looked in the tanks and saw their shrimp curled up, still and white and sinking to the bottom as they suffocated. A few jumped to the surface for oxygen. The mixture was like thick grits, Bobb said. Two to three hundreds pounds of shrimp grits.

The whole catch was lost.

“God, I worked all night and busted my butt for nothing,” he said. He walked back to the driver’s seat.

It was 2:45 a.m. as Bobb powered the Sea Hawk back toward Hernando Beach.

Dion was in the back by the tanks, picking through the grits for the biggest shrimp. She popped off their heads with her thumb. She thought she might skewer these and make a meal.

They each drank another beer.

It was 4 a.m. when they reached the dock, and colleagues from other boats were gathering in the parking lot. Bobb hopped onto the bed of a pickup truck and lit the last peach cigarillo from his night’s pack. Dion leaned on an SUV parked across from him, worn out from the night.

“If I won the lottery, I’d buy a boat,” Bobb said in the darkness.

He would speed out into the gulf like any other night with Dion. But not to pick shrimp.

He would just keep steering the Sea Hawk into the darkness, and he would look back to the deck and say, “ 'Don’t tie up the net, Jacqui.’ ”