Let me start off by telling you how much shrimp I eat: A LOT, but it wasn’t until a international journalism course with Professor Nicolas Tatro that I really began to question the source of my seafood and the importance of sourcing seafood locally.
Shrimping has been a vital aspect of Northeast Florida’s commerce since the early 1900s when Greek boat builders Michael Tiliakos and Demetrios Deonas moved to Fernandina Beach. Using larger engined boats with the ability to trawl larger nets, they helped establish Fernandina as the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. By 2016, the greater Jacksonville area was bringing in nearly $7 million of product to the total Florida shrimp market of $42 million.
Miss Marilyn Louise, a third-generation commercial fisherwoman, is one of the largest contributors to the seafood supply chain coming through Mayport Inlet. The lifelong resident of Mayport Fishing Village walked me through what it’s like to live a life sustained by the ocean.
As a child, Miss Marilyn learned to run shrimp boats from her father and grandfather. She’s since passed her knowledge and experience on to her own children, having taken her son out shrimping with her when he was only 11 days old, noting he had sea legs before he could walk on land.
“[In] his walker, he had to learn to make it stop rolling with the rocking boat,” she explained. “Some of his first life lessons were staying steady on the water.”
Although commercial fishing often gets a bad rap due to overfishing, bycatch and habitat destruction, there are people like Miss Marilyn and her team who act as stewards for protecting local waterways.
“We want [commercial fishing] to be around for a long time, so we’re going to take care of the ocean, and even maybe more so than a person who has no local knowledge that just opened a couple of books and read some papers,” she said. “The fact is you want to see real data, look at one of the computers on those boats and you’ll see everything completely marked out right down to depth contours, where you can drag, where you can’t drag, what the bottom is, what’s on that bottom … We know everything that’s going to be happening. We spent a lifetime to be completely educated about this.”
The one afternoon I spent on a shrimp boat opened my eyes to the amount of product they move. On their most recent trip, which lasted 27 nights, the crew caught, processed and stored exactly 1,400 65-pound bags of shrimp. Experiencing the process firsthand allowed me to witness the amount of hard work and manpower needed to run a shrimping boat and how much commercial fishing contributes to the local economy.
In addition to the seafood they bring in in, the local commercial fishing industry uses a mind-blowing amount of resources for these trips. Marilynn put it in perspective: A semi-truck gasoline tanker carries about 7,000 gallons of fuel; one boat can carry about three tankers worth of fuel, two and one-half tankers of shrimp and one tanker of water. On top of this, deckhands spend about $3,000 on groceries for an average trip.
Miss Marilyn and crew catch what many consumers call Mayport shrimp. However, she explained, the vast majority of their harvest doesn’t come from within Mayport, Most are caught between mid-Georgia and Cape Canaveral. Her boats harvest white shrimp or Mayport whites, rock shrimp, brown shrimp and royal reds are among the few local fleets equipped to shrimp in water as deep as 1,800 feet.
“People just think shrimp is shrimp. You go into a restaurant, you order a shrimp dinner,” Marilyn said, “I always tell people to ask about what you’re eating. Make sure it’s wild caught USA product. It definitely makes a difference because there’s just so much imported farm-raised junk that honestly I wouldn’t feed to my family.”
Aside from the health/safety issues, supporting internationally caught seafood plays into an even bigger issue. An Associated Press investigation of modern seafood sourcing in the Arafura Sea revealed the international supply chain is riddled with human trafficking. Some migrant workers in the Thai seafood industry, for example, work up to 20 hours a day in unsafe conditions, for little to no pay and often while enduring physical abuse.
Marilyn and I talked about this and she put it this way, “Do you want those people to be the ones who you get your seafood from? Or do you want people that care about the environment and take care of the species that are around, having conservation in mind?” In other words, buying local seafood is about more than just stimulating the local economy.
Commercial fishing isn’t just a job for Marilyn: It pulses through her veins. In addition to running her business, she sits on the board for the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council shrimp advisory panel and is active in oceanic conservation. Now with her son also running boats for the business, she knows her legacy will live on.