It’s past sunset as Captain Kelly Nichols Bourne and her crew return from a day of hauling lobster traps. When Bourne, 28, joined her father’s business a decade ago, she was the youngest female commercial captain in the Keys. She still is. Now she and her father drop about 7,600 lobster and 8,000 crab traps per year from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.
This year, Tropical Storm Isaac destroyed nearly 800 traps, and the amount of repair work is plentiful. Lobster prices are down and the demand from Asian markets isn’t as strong as last year. Despite the challenges, Bourne said all she wants to do — all she has ever wanted to do since she was a girl — is fish.
“When I first started, it was a big, big challenge, being a woman especially. I think the biggest person I had to prove myself to was my dad,” Bourne said.
Commercial fishers in the Keys keep tight communities, and probably none is tighter than the one in Conch Key. It’s a tiny island where lobster and crab fisherman live and work, enduring dangerous storms, long hours and backbreaking labor. It used to be that fathers passed their businesses to their sons, but these days it’s just as likely that the younger generation will try another career.
A difficult life
Bourne’s father, Gary Nichols Jr., took some convincing. His daughter was 16 when she started begging him to let her captain one of his boats. He ignored her for two years. He said he wasn’t sure it was a life he wanted for his daughter.
“The captain’s job sounds glamorous, but down here you have Keys disease — drugs and alcohol. People not coming to work, and I need a guy to be consistent. We have a big business here and we need the boats to go out six, seven days a week,” Nichols said.
Bourne’s grandfather laughs when he remembers the day Kelly got her chance. Her father needed a captain and there was no one available on the island. Gary Nichols Sr. said all the guys on the island underestimated his granddaughter’s abilities until they saw her dock park a big boat.
“All these fishermen on the island were waiting for her to come in,” he said. “She pulled that big boat up to that dock like it was a piece of cake. She gets off the boat with her ball cap and a ponytail in the back end of it sticking out of it and I’m saying, ‘OK, guys, the male-dominated world just come to an end.’ ”
The daily grind
On a recent day, Bourne’s husband, Brian, steered the boat while she winched and lifted the lobster traps from the ocean bottom. It’s heavy work; the traps weigh 150 pounds when wet. She stacks them on top of each other, five rows high. Her husband can’t help lift anymore because years of reeling and trolling big fish have permanently damaged his wrists.
What’s more, “I have five herniated discs in my back,” he said. “But I still feel strong. It’s just that I want to slow down a little bit.”
Bourne admits commercial fishing is a man’s job. “When we put out traps, we start at midnight and we go around the clock for two days.”
The day almost finished, Bourne and her crew worked quickly, unloading the catch. Live lobsters were sorted, weighed and packed for delivery to restaurants in the Keys, up north and all the way to China. She knows her 5-year-old son is eagerly awaiting her return home so he can be tucked into bed. Most days she makes it, unless she’s short a crew member.
Tonight, she’s smiling. She’s going to make it home on time.
“Rough days, obviously, you don’t like them very much. But on a beautiful day, there’s nothing like it,” she said. “Looking at a sunset, seeing dolphin jump fish. The water is so beautiful. When you are catching lobster, you are having fun.”