Steve Heintz says the food shrimp harvest season in Biscayne Bay that opened Nov. 1 has been the worst he’s seen in nearly 30 years of commercial fishing.
“Last year was bad, but not anywhere near as bad as this year,” Heintz said in an interview earlier this month. “I’ve gone ten times and my biggest night was 250 pounds. It’s so bad that I’ll only go when I hear they caught some. Then, when I go, it’s already over.”
Commercial food shrimpers like Heintz tow mesh nets that look like tapering socks called wing nets off both sides of their boats just below the surface to target large “running” shrimp heading out of the bay at night to spawn in the open ocean. A good night of wing-netting — conducted mostly between the Venetian and Rickenbacker causeways — can yield between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds.
But Manny Medina of Miami Springs, who’s been pulling wing nets every night since the season opened, said his best catch so far is 470 pounds. With wholesalers typically paying about $1 per pound — pretty much unchanged from decades ago — the 2012-13 season, open through May 31, so far has been a bust.
“Awful,” Medina said.
Food shrimpers are not the only ones bemoaning the shortage. Year-round fishers targeting smaller bait shrimp with roller-frame trawls towed on the bottom in the southern part of the bay also are having a hard time.
Soraya Dittrich owns four commercial bait boats that net live shrimp to be sold to tackle shops. For many years, she said, her boats easily harvested 15,000-30,000 shrimp per night. These days, Dittrich said, they’re getting 12,000-13,000 and working all night to do it. Bait shrimp typically goes for about $55 for 500, she said.
Shrimpers don’t know what’s behind the meager haul. They speculate about unseasonably warm winter weather and the 2010 BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP angle arises because shrimp caught in Biscayne Bay begin as larvae in the Gulf near the Dry Tortugas, carried here on ocean currents to settle in sea grass beds until they’re large enough to spawn. Then they migrate back out to sea, usually in the winter months around full moons. No oil contamination has been found in Biscayne Bay shrimp, but that hasn’t stopped the grumbling.
A look at shrimp harvest statistics compiled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows 2003 was the worst season for Biscayne Bay in the past decade: wing-netters picked up only 72,342 pounds while bait trawlers netted 193,685 crustaceans (measured in numbers of shrimp — not pounds). In 2010-11, following the BP oil disaster, the catch was 1,052,128 pounds of food shrimp and 205,165 baits. Then last season, things went south for the wing netters whose catch plummeted to 316,438 pounds. Bait shrimpers harvested 240,054 for 2011-12.
The seasonal harvest depends on several factors: how many boats spend how many nights targeting shrimp — numbers that fluctuate with the prices of fuel and imported shrimp — and environmental components such as water temperature, salinity, habitat and pollution.
Joan Browder, a veteran scientist with NOAA Fisheries in Miami, has published research papers with colleagues describing the food and bait shrimp fisheries in Biscayne Bay and demonstrating that their abundance is a key indicator of the effects of Everglades restoration projects aimed at sending more fresh water into the bay.
Browder has found there is a complex relationship between environmental factors and the shrimp harvest that is not well understood.
“I don’t think we know what is causing this bad year or the 2003 bad year,” Browder said. “It’s very, very important to continue monitoring of salinity and shrimp and other critters to figure out things like this.”
Meanwhile, with a little over two months left in the harvest season, food shrimper Jeff Hald of Fort Lauderdale has little hope he’ll recoup some $6,000 in expenses — much less make a profit.
“I’ve about given up on it,” Hald said. “What if they do have a late run and I catch 5,000 or 6,000 pounds? Will that make it right? No.”