By WARREN RESEN
Member Florida Outdoor Writers Assn.
What are the makings for a great three course meal while you’re watching your favorite team on TV? A mess of cold shrimp with a side of hot sauce and a cold beer. Does it get any better? Not when you demand only the best.
Most people have no idea, and probably don’t care, that the shrimp they buy in the market and eat in restaurants is most likely farm raised. Is there a difference between farm raised and the wild variety? Think free range beef and chicken or more to the point, wild salmon versus farm raised. You pay a little more for the “real” thing but the taste is superior.
However, we may no longer have much of a choice because of what’s going on in the Gulf and the shape of the shrimp fishing industry in general. Shrimp fishing is now more of historical interest than thriving industry in many areas.
About 50 years ago a shrimp fleet found a home in the sparsely populated Yankeetown area of northern Florida. Jack Sparks, who claimed to be one of the first shrimp fisherman in the area, arrived with his shrimp boat “Queenie. ”
He told me that, “the late 80’s and early 90’s were the heyday for shrimp fishing in that part of the Florida Gulf. On a good night a boat could haul in a catch worth hundreds of dollars and there might be as many as 100 boats from all over the Gulf Coast to work the offshore 100 mile St. Martin’s Reef.” Jack stated with some conviction, “that naturally caught shrimp are far superior in taste and texture to farm raised ones. ”
Now, unable to compete with farm raised shrimp, some of the remaining shrimpers net shrimp for bait. Many boats just sit abandoned and rusting on the riverfront, of interest mainly to photographers and painters.
During a recent trip to St. Simons Island in the Golden Isles of south east Georgia, I took a trip on a converted shrimp boat, the “Lady Jane” captained by Larry Credle, or just plain Capt. Larry. Unlike so many former shrimp boats that have been consigned to the scrap heap, Capt. Larry spent more than a few years converting this working shrimp boat to a floating class room and tour vessel.
According to Capt. Larry, in SE Georgia there were approximately 1,000 registered shrimp boats in 1980. Today there are less than 300 and their catch runs about 3 to 4 million pounds annually versus one million pounds weekly from shrimp farms and foreign imports.
After it was revamped, the “Lady Jane” was licensed to take passengers on excursions. Capt. Larry runs tours to show how netting shrimp was, and is still done, by the active fleet. The “Lady Jane” is a shrimp trawler and the only one on the east coast licensed by the USCG to carry up to 49 passengers.
During a two hour cruise on the waters of St. Simons Sound, members of the crew gave passengers a college level education about shrimping in the southeast United States. Then Capt. Larry ordered the crew to drop the shrimp net over the stern of the “Lady Jane. ” This is done several times during the cruise and in different locations. When the net is brought up and the catch emptied on the sorting table, the variety of sea life displayed amazed the passengers. After all this is a major salt water bay so there’s no telling what, besides shrimp, will be caught
When I was on the ship, the catch included a large variety of fish, blue claw crabs, horseshoe crabs and to the delight of the assembled multitude, even one Hawksbill sea turtle. The Hawksbill was measured, photographed and released.
Another highlight of the cruise is the shrimp boil. The catch is broiled and passengers are free to peel and eat as many shrimp as they like. And this is the point at which passengers, up close and personal, can taste the difference between fresh caught and farm raised shrimp.
The “Lady Jane” does do some real shrimping, but for most of the year, Capt. Larry offers a variety of programs and trips to keep the cash register ringing. “Lady Jane” can be rented for weddings, sunset cruises, diving and bottom fishing as well as dolphin sightseeing. But the ultimate trip is the one he calls, “The Ashes to Sea Program.” Yes, burial at sea. A round trip for friends and family but not for the main participant.
If you are traveling scenic Route 17 in the Brunswick, Georgia, area and have a couple of free hours, take this unusual and educational boat ride. “Lady Jane” is docked at Spanky’s Restaurant, marshside, where you can get your fill of southern cooking and, of course, fresh seafood.