MATLACHA, Fla — Southwest Florida’s commercial fishing industry has been struggling for some time from the recent red tide and the graying out of the fleet. But now, Hurricane Ian has put the fishing industry on the ropes.
“Lee County’s seafood industry took a major hit,” said Casey Streeter, a commercial fisherman and the owner of Island Seafood Market on Matlacha.
Hurricane Ian’s powerful storm surge destroyed a large portion of Southwest Florida’s fishing industry from boats to docks to fish houses.
“Fort Myers beach, our shrimp fleet is decimated, that’s about a 200-million-dollar loss with what they do,” said Streeter. “Their boats are obviously tanged up onshore...Here on Pine Island, we lost four of our five fish houses. We lost many of the grouper boats. The infrastructure of our fishery is gone.”
Of the approximately 50 shrimping boats in port during Ian, only 2 are fishing worthy currently. Shrimping in Fort Myers, pre-Ian did 20 million dollars annually and was the largest shrimp exporter in the state.
And with the fishery’s infrastructure severely damaged, this is just another hit to an industry that has been battling several other issues threatening its longevity of the industry.
“From our Red Tide events, from the graying out of the fleet, people aging out of the fishery, not many people coming in,” said Streeter. I mean Florida’s seafood industry is on the verge.”
If the fishing industry was lost in Lee County, Streeter says Southwest Florida would lose a big part of what makes this area so special.
“Our fishermen on Pine Island especially, the original infrastructure on this island was set to get catch from fishermen to market,” said Streeter. “So the culture, the history of what made this area unique in the first place is gone or will be gone and I don’t want to see that.”
Streeter and others in the fishing industry looking for assistance from the state and federal governments. Unfortunately, that could take some time.
“What we need from the fishery, we need congressional support to push our disaster declaration through, because there are resources that come into fisheries when we have these issues, but they can take up to 2 to 3 years,” said Streeter.
Streeter adds, “We tore down everything that made our building and our property a fish house that the last couple of days. Our ice houses are gone, our equipment is gone, and our building is gutted. I mean we lost everything our building is done right now. So, we need that support from our federal side and our stateside.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says that they are coordinating the next steps, and as soon as a rapid assessment is conducted, they anticipate that the state will request a federal disaster declaration from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. That official request must come from Governor DeSantis's office. Streeter says that they are ready and waiting, but just need a bit of help.
“We want to be able to continue to provide seafood to our community. We want to be able to get our businesses that are dependent on our seafood back online. So, we are ready. We cleared out our lot and our property because we want to build it back immediately, but we are going to need help.”
Streeter says he hopes his business back up and ready to sell seafood again to public by the holiday season. He hopes that will bring some normalcy back, which he says is something we all need.