That’s the situation Southwest Florida’s commercial shrimpers found themselves in Monday as an oil slick spread out into the Gulf of Mexico — possibly headed this way.
But even if it doesn’t make it here, there are few good options because this is the time of year when they follow the shrimp north along the Gulf coast and ultimately to Texas.
That won’t happen this year, said Henry Gore, 49, of Fort Myers Beach, a fishing captain for 20 years.
“We start going over in a few weeks and start fishing in Louisiana,” he said.
This year, Gore said, “I’m probably going to go right on out here off Fort Myers one more time, or maybe south. I’m scared to go north right now.”
After that the shrimping on this side of the Gulf will have largely petered out and the choices become harder even if the oil doesn’t make it this far, he said.
Local boats could be forced to stay near home even as boats from elsewhere pour in to avoid the pollution to the west, Gore said. “That’s more boats catching less shrimp.”
Shrimping is big business in Florida — the state’s commercial fishermen caught 13.8 million pounds worth $2.33 a pound for a total of $28.4 million in 2008, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
On the San Carlos Island docks, where most local shrimpers have their home port, everything appeared normal Monday as bags of shrimp were unloaded into packing houses and fishermen worked on their boats and nets.
But nobody was optimistic about the likely effects on commercial fishing.
“I think the spill’s like a hurricane,” said David Murray, captain of the shrimp boat Alley Cat. “It's going to devastate many people along the coast. We will be devastated.”
If the blowout isn’t capped soon, he said, it’s inevitable that Gulf currents eventually will carry the oil to Southwest Florida’s coast.
“We call it a washing machine,” he said. “It goes around in a circle. Of course it’ll be here.”
Harry Marx, a semi-retired commercial fisherman, recalled the widespread effects of a major spill off Mexico years ago.
“It leaked for four months,” he said. “Hotels on the beach had buckets of rags and kerosene” for patrons to wipe the oil off their feet.
Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeast Fisheries Association in Tallahassee, said it’s likely the entire Gulf will be affected and pointed to fishing grounds closer to the spill that already have been shut down.
“I think you can look at what has already occurred as a portent of what’s to come,” he said.
Jones said he hopes the cleanup effort getting under way now will provide at least some financial relief for the unemployed fishermen.
British Petroleum, the company whose oil drilling caused the spill, “should be responsible for putting all those people on their payroll for cleanup efforts,” he said.
Still, Jones said, the whole coastal economy — not just commercial fishermen — is in for some hard times.
“The charter boats, the anglers, all the people who support those industries,” he said. “The size of the thing blows your mind.”