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Pine Island shrimp farm perseveres through Hurricane Ian aftermath

Sun Shrimp Farm
Posted at 4:47 PM, Oct 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-05 18:31:38-04

SAINT JAMES CITY, Fla. — The only bridge to Pine Island was destroyed by Ian, but that hasn’t stopped farm workers from getting back to work on the island.

Many may not know, but Pine Island is one of the nation’s top suppliers of shrimp.

Sun Shrimp Farm in Saint James City is proving that resilience can get you through any storm.

“The day after the hurricane I walked from the Publix at Burnt Store Road, hitched a ride on a boat, and made it all the way here,” said Robin Pearl, owner of Sun Shrimp Farm.

His seven-and-a-half-acre farm suffered some damage. Pearl said as he walked through the devastated streets of Matlacha, he didn’t think he would find his farm still standing.

“I said 'There's no way there's anything left here,' but as I walked by I heard the generators going,” he said.

Robin Pearl started Sun Shrimp Farms in 2013. He said he’s had success in supplying shrimp to businesses and top chefs across the globe.

Hurricane Ian killed nearly 100 thousand pounds of his shrimp and damaged all of his shrimp tents.

“You know there's a wall missing here and a wall missing there, but all that can be fixed,” he said.

By far he said the biggest challenge has been road access to the farm.

“The bridge was out and so we couldn't get to the farm,” he said.

For him and his dozens of employees that live off the island, getting to the farm is a trek that starts before daybreak.

Right now he employs about 70 farmworkers. About 40 live off the island.

“It's pretty incredible we used to be able to drive to work and didn't think twice about it and now we’re taking a truck to a boat and another truck to get to the farm, but we’ll do whatever it takes to get to work and take care of the shrimp,” said Kathryn Lipson, Assistant Production Manager at Sun Shrimp Farms.

About 70% of the farm’s workers are immigrants.

Wilfredo Martinez, an immigrant from Cuba, said they are in a rebuilding phase at the farm.

“There's a desire to prosper from this situation, to prosper the economy, and for ourselves to prosper,” he said.

The farm has a few short weeks until the start of their busiest time of the year.

“November, December, and January are the prime seasons so you know we got a month to get ready and at this point, oh yeah we’ll be ready,” said Pearl.

Wednesday morning the workers were busy cleaning, repairing, and attending to the shrimp they have left.

“This island has such a rich history of fishing and seafood,” said Pearl.

The farm not only produces fresh natural shrimp, they also use genetics to breed some of the strongest shrimp.

“All these tanks have different genetic animals, different sizes and weights for different purposes,” he said.

As fuel ran low at the farm, Pearl said he had to make the decision to keep the genetic fish tank powered. That decision led to having to power off a lot of the tanks that held pounds of live shrimp.

That caused many of his shrimp to die.

The Florida Farm Bureau reports that Florida farms have endured catastrophic levels of flooding and wind damage to crops and livestock as a result of Hurricane Ian.

While some farms were devastated, Pearl said they were one of the lucky ones.

“We've been through some very difficult times over the years.”

He said he’s proud of his team.

“A lot of them don't have electricity, they have their own problems they’re dealing with, this is their livelihood obviously, but at the same time there's a genuine passion here,” he said.