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Erickson & Jensen steers shrimp fleet through turbulent season

December 25, 2019
By NATHAN MAYBERG (nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

For almost 70 years, Grant Erickson's family has been fishing for shrimp in the waters surrounding Fort Myers Beach. His company, Erickson & Jensen Marine Supplies, still plays an integral role on San Carlos Island off what is the largest shrimp port in Florida.

Erickson's fleet of shrimp boats and the fishermen that dock at his property off Shrimp Lane at Matanzas Pass are currently going through a dry spell as the shrimp crop is currently on track to be below average to average at best.

So far this season, the shrimping hasn't been that good to the local shrimpers, Erickson said.

Article Photos

Grant Erickson, co-owner of Erickson & Jensen Marine Supplies stands at his dock at Matanzas Pass off Shrimp Lane where his shrimp fleet sits. In the background is his “Malolo” vessel, named after the wooden boat his grandfather Carl sailed down in from Long Island to Fort Myers Beach in 1950 and began fishing for pink shrimp.

NATHAN MAYBERG

"It doesn't look like any shrimp crop this year," Erickson said. "This is just survival.

"When I send out a boat now, there is a chance I'm not going to make money," he said. It's hard to pinpoint the reasons for the low shrimp counts this year but there is still about six months left in the season here for Erickson before his boats go on a four-month stay in Texas.

"It's not over yet," he said.

Erickson's family has been in the fishing business for multiple generations. His grandfather Carl, who lived in Long Island, started the business after visiting the waters on his wooden boat "Malolo" around Fort Myers Beach and found the plentiful pink shrimp in 1950. The family purchased the property on Shrimp Lane where their business has stood since 1964. The shrimpers used to be situated at another site near the water but the current location has provided their boats with easier access to the Gulf of Mexico. The business used to be known as Erickson, Erickson & Jensen. Grant's father passed on the family business to him.

Erickson's father, Carl, was a schoolteacher before going into the shrimping business. When the Ericksons got involved in shrimping, most fishermen weren't that concerned with them. They were more interested in mullet, trout, snapper and grouper, he said.

"That's when they really started harvesting pink shrimp," Erickson said. They would freeze their catch and send boxes of them to the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx.

When Erickson came back from the University of Florida with a degree in food and resource economics, he convinced his family and their business partners to build a shrimp processing facility. They would grate the shrimp and separate them between 10 different sizes. They had a market on site and would deliver the frozen shrimp all around Southwest Florida in five-pound boxes and 50-pound cases. "It worked very well and we did it very good," Erickson said. The facility closed 10 years ago as the company equipped its boats with freezers, lessening the need for the facility.

The shrimp caught on his boats end up in supermarkets and local restaurants.

Erickson's former partner Bert Jensen died in 2006. "He was a great guy. He was like a father to me," Erickson said. Jensen's widow, Bobbie, is his business partner now.

Before the Jensen family, Grant's dad and grandfather were partners with Charlie Green, former Lee County Clerk of Court.

Erickson is at the center of everything in the local shrimping business. He sends boats out to catch shrimp, sells fuel to those operating shrimp boats, and sells supplies and access to his docks. He buys shrimp off independent shrimp boat captains. "I'll help them make their business work," Erickson said.

Erickson's family fleet has grown from the "Malolo" wooden shrimp boat to nine 75-foot Desco fiberglass shrimp trollers and a 100-foot steel boat. He has 12 boats in total including a new "Mololo" made of fiberglass. The steel boat can go on trips that last as long as 60 days. Some of them are named after family like "Babe," his grandmother whose real name was Lillian. Another one is named after his daughter Anva.

Erickson's fleet splits their time shrimping off Fort Myers Beach for eight months and in Texas four months out of the year. They returned in October. Now there are shrimpers from Texas using his docks for shrimping. It takes 100 hours for his ships to get to Texas, where the temperatures are much colder in the winter than here. A trip to Texas requires 2,000 gallons of fuel, which is his biggest expense. When gas prices soared after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Erickson's shrimping business took a major hit. "You couldn't catch enough product to pay for the fuel at times," he said. Now that gas prices have stablized, so has his business. The shrimp boats here typically go out no more than 10-20 miles off shore, Erickson said. Sometimes they travel as far as 50 miles away.

The cold and windy conditions in recent days have made it tough on fishermen. "When it's rough like this, everything is twice as hard on the boat," he said. That can also mean expensive repairs. "A lot of guys come in and rather than be out there banging around they go see their families."

The windy conditions were so bad recently that two shrimp boats drifted onto a sandbar and had to be rescued by Erickson's Nautilus, operated by Stephen Phelps.

Erickson has no worries though. He has seen these kinds of dry spells before. The shrimp always come back, he said. Female shrimp lay 90,000 eggs. Last year's elevated red tide counts devastated the local fish population though Erickson said shrimp migrate here from many areas. The red tide has largely disappeared over the past month.

"You can have the worst year imaginable and have the best year imaginable next year," Erickson said. "You have to look at it from an optimistic view."

 
 

 

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