By Chelle Koster Walton
The shrimp fleet of San Carlos Island offloads more Florida pink shrimp than anywhere else in Florida. Connoisseurs consider this indigenous Gulf of Mexico species among the sweetest in the United States.
Dennis Henderson flicks the head off a raw pink shrimp with his thumb, deftly skims off its flimsy shell and pops it into his mouth, pronouncing it, with a smile, “sweet as can be.”
Most people prefer their wild Gulf shrimp cooked, including the lady who returned her purchase to Henderson's Beach Seafood market on San Carlos Island in Fort Myers Beach. Turns out, because of its pink color, she thought the shrimp had already been cooked.
No problem. Anyone who has ever tasted the unadulterated salty sweetness of Florida pink shrimp at the table – whether steamed, fried, sautéed or grilled – would more than likely agree with Henderson's assessment
The shrimp fleet of San Carlos Island offloads more Florida pinks than anywhere else in Florida, says a 1999 study by the University of Florida. Shrimp connoisseurs consider the indigenous Gulf of Mexico Penaeus duorarum species among the sweetest harvested in the United States. Shrimp fishermen have considered it “pink gold” since the early 1950s.
That's when fishermen first discovered pink shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly thereafter, San Carlos Island – the small island between the southwest Florida mainland and Fort Myers Beach's main Estero Island – popped up as a makeshift village to provide the shrimping boats with food, ice, nets, repairs, equipment and other supplies. Docks and processing plants accommodated the offloading of the crustaceans for trans-shipment.
A little town unto itself, that salty community still bustles along the island's Estero Bay shores. Beach Seafood, one of three markets along the working waterfront, marks its southern end. Here visitors can watch as fishermen bring their catches to the docks, witness the heading and grading processes, then sit down in the restaurant and relish some of the freshest tasting shrimp on this planet as they watch videos on how the shrimp are harvested at sea.
Typically three fishermen – the captain, the rig man and another – populate a shrimping trawler that sets out to sea for upward of 20 days – the length depending upon how much they are catching. A haul of 20,000 pounds is considered a good trip.
“The good news is we're not going to overfish shrimp,” said Henderson. “Shrimp are all over – in a quarter foot of water to 1,000 feet deep.”
Populations flux more from the impact of weather and the environment than from harvesting. The fast-reproducing shrimp make for a totally sustainable, renewable resource, even though Americans eat on average about 4.1 pounds of shrimp each year, according to NOAA – more than any other type of seafood.
You'd be hard pressed to find a restaurant in Fort Myers Beach that doesn't have at least one shrimp dish on its menu. Steamed in the shell or crispy deep-fried constitute the classic preparations. At Beach Seafood, the breading is ever so delicate, just enough to seal in the juicy tenderness.
Here, and at a few other local restaurants that buy directly from the docks, no additives or preservatives get between your taste buds and the shrimp. In the seafood markets, you can purchase it frozen to take home. They'll even package it for air travel. (Airport security allows it in carry-ons.)
“Unlike other seafood, you can freeze, thaw and refreeze shrimp with no loss of flavor,” said Henderson. Fishermen on the boats, in fact, flash-freeze their catches right out of the nets, and store them in huge freezers in their holds.
To learn and see more of the town's rich shrimping heritage and industry, book a Wednesday Working Waterfront Tour with Ostego Bay Foundation's Marine Science Center on San Carlos Island, beneath the high bridge to Estero Island.
The three-hour tour takes in the center's marine displays, including a shrimping display with a trawler model and a pair of white rubber boots affectionately known as “San Carlos bedroom slippers.”
Any day of the year you will see the crusty but camera-coaxing shrimping boats along the uneven wooden docks. On a good day you can chat with fishermen as they throw their 40-pound mesh sacks of shrimp off deck. During high season, after Thanksgiving, boats sometimes sit six deep at dock.
“The fishermen love to talk,” said Joanne Semmer, Ostego Bay Foundation president. “They're happy to be back home. They're happy to be bringing in lots of shrimp.”
The port welcomes 80 to 100 different trawlers in season. It creates a feast for the senses, but is surprisingly spic-and-span and clean-scented.
During the annual 60-year-old Blessing of the Fleet ceremony in February or March at full moon time (shrimp burrow in the daylight and under the beams of a bright moon), visitors can tour a shrimp boat.
The second weekend of March brings another reason to celebrate shrimp: the annual two-day Shrimp Festival. The local Lions Club boils up more than 1,200 pounds of Gulf shrimp, but festival-goers can also try everything from shrimp pizza to crab-stuffed shrimp. More than 40,000 descend over the weekend to watch the parade and Shrimp Queen Coronation.
But mostly they come for what locals consider the finest shrimp in Florida.