The shrimp boat captains of Biscayne bay scrape out a meager living in an industry shunned for its potentially harmful environmental impact.
It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, but the night does little to ward of the humidity in the air. Near the water it’s cooler. Though you can no longer feel the radiant heat from the sidewalks and the city, sweat beads on his forehead. His hair is pulled back into a short ponytail. His crown wrapped with a blue bandana, stained navy from the sweat of his work. Down his back he wears his damp t-shirt like a second skin. He is tall and lean, browned for a man who keeps such late hours, and with blue eyes that shine even in the inky darkness of the bay.
Aaron Comegys props himself up on one elbow and hunches, shrinking himself to fit underneath the roof of his boat. He looks at the ground quizzically, face shadowed. As he rises to answer my question, his face catches the light from the street lamps and I can see passion and determination on his previously pensive face.
“People always tell me that what I do is bad for the environment, but I don’t really know or think so. If you want I’ll take you out anytime. Bring your camera and you can see for yourself.”
At 6 p.m. on an oppressively hot day in June, I sit on the wall at Dinner Key Marina getting used to the smell of fish and diesel that hovers in the air. We had met a few nights before and I hoped the offer still stood. As I wait, the sun begins to beat down on my face and bare arms; sweat rises from between my fingers and toes and begins to speckle my chin and brow. As I look down to wipe my hands on my ragged denim shorts I hear the purr of a zodiac motor cruising into the marina from the anchorage. I look across the water to the tanned familiar face and stand, ready to begin my long night on the bay.
I inexpertly lug my camera gear down the wobbly gangplank and onto the floating dock next to his boat. The bobbing vessel is rough and weathered as the oldest moorings on the bay. The lacquer and paint flakes from its hull in tight tubes like the papery bark of a birch tree. Without many words Aaron readies the boat for the night. He checks the live-wells and tightens their caps, then turns on the pump to fill them with foaming, frothy saltwater.
The trawl nets are pulled in and their intricate diamonds examined for holes. Where there might be a gap is the body of a pipefish or strands of eelgrass, pulling the mesh tighter together like biological thread. Once they pass inspection, the ends of the nets are tied with gray-green rope that looks older than the boat itself. It appears to me to be a low-tech way to keep the shrimp in the net, but it’s been done this way for decades and the method is tried and true.
The sun is getting low and the light reflecting off the water colors everything with the brightest shades of yellow and gold. For a few minutes the rays vacate the haze of humidity and the world appears sharp and clear.
“I’ve been sailing my whole life,” Aaron tells me. “I’m at peace on the water.”
As I try to capture the image of light playing into the tones of his hair, illuminating the lines of his face, the engines go from a rumble to a roar. We set off from the dock into the labyrinth of sailboats, which are bobbing like a flock of gulls, just past the slips of the marina.
We make our way north out onto the open waters of Biscayne Bay. The sunlight is beginning to wane and the lights of downtown Miami pop up likes the first stars of the evening sky. Aaron leaves the helm and walks to the side of the vessel where he starts pulling ropes and coils with cacophonic movements as if they were connected to the instruments of his one-man band.
The booms are set wide, turning the boat into immense cross. He looses the lines and the trawl nets plunge into the bay. In the water they spread like wings. He hoists the nets back out of the water, jogging them up and down, letting them fill and fan out behind the gated trawl door. It is a long rectangle about twelve feet wide, from its top hang rigid metal bars, thick as fingers, spaced inches apart to keep bigger fish and sea grass from clogging the net. The bottom frame of the gate is a long, cogged and slotted rolling pin designed to roll across the bottom of the bay agitating the shrimp so that they jump up off the seafloor and get swept back into the net.
After the 1960s, commercial fishermen on Biscayne Bay began to implement the use of the roller-frame trawl as a non-destructive alternative to the earlier versions of otter trawl, which dug into the bottom of the bay and removed the top three inches of benthic sediment, its inhabitants and the sea grass. I asked Aaron what he thought of the rollers.
“I really don’t know what to tell you about ‘em. I know they’re special to this bay and all the older guys love ‘em. They tell me the yield is much higher and they pull up less trash with them than the old ones.”
“Trash means sea grass,” he says in response to my questioning look, “It used to be that they old guys would pull up pounds and pounds of green blades. Now all we get is the dead stuff that’s already loose off the bottom.”
Calling the brown grass ‘dead’ is often a case of mistaken identity. While it looks like soggy winter Bermuda, the grass is actually a type of macro algae commonly found on the bottom of shallow bays.
After filling and priming the nets one final time, Aaron yanks down a lever and the trawls begin to peel line from their spools. In a whiz of white, he yanks another lever, and with the tip of his rubber boots, locks the spool as soon as he sees his mark, a band of black electrical tape on the line that hovers midway between the deck and the roof.
“This is the depth, this is when we catch the most shrimp.”
“Thirty minutes,” he says. “That’s all we can do before they start to die.”
So we sit and we wait without speaking. Our voices, let alone thoughts, are drowned out by the heavy roar of the engines. I look out on the city of Miami and she appears still on the horizon. We are idling around 2 knots. The only motion you can feel is the surging and plunging of the boat beneath us.
Aaron moves around the boat deftly, and pulls out his tools; a series of handmade nets, a white wooden box with a removable edge and a 2×10 cut down to about a meter. After a while and without a word, he sets to the winch and pulleys and begins recoiling the trawl lines around the spool. He dips and pulls the nets repeatedly to settle all the shrimp down into the bottom. Finally, he hoists up the rigging, clamps the net lines and swings the tail of the net, heavy with catch, over the receiving well. He unties the soggy rope and pounds of benthos drop into the water with a splash.
With a piece of wood he begins to stir and pull the contents of the well like an old-time launderer, catching and casting the sticking sea grass over the side into the bay. Aaron tells me he feels like he’s kind of a gardener of sorts.
“I feel it’s like composting. I’m pulling up the old rotting vegetation that’s suffocating the bottom and I’m redistributing it and all the nutrients elsewhere.”
Though scientists note that rotting material can choke the reef and other sea grass communities, environmental consultant and marine policy expert Kevin Iglesias tells me that because the shrimpers are scraping the bottom of northern Biscayne Bay, near the Miami River, the removal of the bottom layer of dead grass is really just a way of stirring up all the pollutants, washed out from the city, that had settled to the bottom.
After the trough has been cleaned, Aaron grabs one of his nets, and begins to scoop out the quarry from the well, dumping it into his white, wooden sorting tray.
The last things you see in the wriggling pile are the small, pale-pink bait shrimp. For every shrimp there is an equal number of juvenile reef fish, like mangrove snappers, grouper and filefish. Blue crabs writhe amongst the clumps of sea grass, scurrying for cover underneath the bright-red fragments of sea sponges. Most pitiful-looking are the seahorses. Having rigid bodies with no limbs they lay seemingly lifeless, floating on top of the roiling mass.
Aaron assures me that almost everything caught in the nets comes up and leaves intact. He pulls a juvenile octopus from the pile. The tiny mollusk pulses gently in his hand, delicately wrapping its arms around his thumb. Though its smooth flesh appears unharmed, many marine biologists agree that most of the untargeted species brought up in trawl nets have internal injuries and are thrown back either dead or dying.
Before I have time to finish processing the puzzle of species on the sorting board, Aaron plucks out the few shrimp and tosses them into the holding well. With a swift move he pulls out the edge of the box and uses it to push all the by-catch back into the sea. We have to turn the boat around and set the trawls again before he can stoop to the floor to pick up anything that didn’t make it into the well.
After hours and hours of the same plodding up and down the bay, Aaron pulls in his gear and we head back in to distribute the catch. The night is so dark that despite the lights from the city, my eyes cannot distinguish a thing. As I look over the bow and port side, the blackness consumes my vision. All of a sudden one sailboat and then another appears until we reach the bright lights and concrete walls of the marina.
Leaning on the greasy white metal railing that surrounds Dinner Key Marina stands Richard Ballinger, shifting, uncrossing and re-crossing his legs. He seems indifferent to the spray from the running motors and the gasoline fumes that coat everything with a salty, tacky layer of grime.
As he waits for Aaron to sort through the catch, he adjusts the Bluetooth in his ear, and looks at his watch. He’s been here since a quarter to one waiting on the shrimp boats, heavy with the night’s bounty, to come into the slips. This is his second boat of the morning. He waits patiently and silently, studying the man on the boat who is dipping and bending with fatigued arms and hunched shoulders.
With a flat square net Aaron sifts the shrimp out of the bubbling live well. He shakes them out, spreading them like batter in a skillet, and with quick and dexterous fingers plucks out the dead like fowl feathers and discards them over the side into the bay. He quickly transfers the remaining wriggling, flailing catch into another holding tank before they have time to expire. The wooden deck of the boat is slick with water. With every quickened step of his white rubber boots, there is a splash and a sharp clapping sound as the treads cut through the film.
In the light of the mismatched pair of overhead work lamps, he fills the long cylindrical mesh bucket to the wire indicator line. Methodically, 500 shrimp then 500 more drop with a whoosh into the buckets. Yellow, white and black with labels like “heavy duty engine oil.”
Once full, Richard scoops them up as if they weigh nothing and carries them to the back of his bright yellow F-350, its engine roaring in the parking lot like a lion waiting for the load of bite-sized morsels to be poured into its gaping maw. Tonight 7,200 shrimp will make their way through the darkness of the glades to Naples. In the morning, they will be scooped up at first light and onto another boat and returned to another bay, used as bait by other fishermen who also make their livings from the sea. As Aaron loads the last of the shrimp into the last of the buckets the red-eyed night herons perch like ravens on any possible foothold, late visitors to the long-gone feast.
Special thanks to Shannon Sanders for her beautiful photographs and for accompanying me on this journey.
Story by Kathryn Rende
Camera and Sound by Kathryn Rende
Edited by Kathryn Rende
Interview by Kathryn Rende
Photographs ©Shannon Sanders