Having a personal project is a great antidote to any burn-out from the commercial side of photography. With that said, I'm learning that any self propelled documentary project takes pushing boundaries and lots of persistence. Last summer I began exploring around the old Riberia shrimp docks, curious about the old boats and the larger than life characters who captained them. I had scoped the dock for years when crossing over Santa Maria creek, but was totally surprised when I was lain such a warm welcome while looking so conspicuously out of place, with camera dangling around my neck. For about a year now, on the right afternoon- usually right before dusk, I've been stopping by to catch up, slowly getting to now the few families who run the two or three boats which still ply for local white shrimp. Over a tallboy, I'll hear the multi-generational sagas, the "shrimp tales" of season and technique- and the inevitable conclusions that shrimping on the first coast is a dying craft. Not being a journalist with a deadline, it's a story I plan to continue following- to keep returning to when I have the time- as the industry changes and these resilient fisherman keep following their craft into the unforeseen future.
Miss Joy heading out for an evening run as deckhand Capt Billy's grandson tightens up loose ends
The white boots are iconic footwear of the shrimping lifestyle. I once ran into a sunburnt tattooed shrimper at tradewinds lounge still wearing his white boots, when I asked him if he was a shrimper he reached in and pulled out a small blade covered in fish parts.
At the south end of the dock, shrimpers unload the days catch at the local seafood purveyor. Prices fluctuate with season,and with the state of the import market. Last year shrimp prices were high due to a ban on contaminated Vietnamese shrimp. This year it's much lower as imports flood the market. A popular bumper sticker in Mayport reads
"friends don't let friends buy imported shrimp"
Cleaning what remains in the nets after a few summer days at sea is one of the most pungent tasks in the industry
This is the first photo I took relating to shrimping. Kenny Thompson pulled up to the Vilano dock right at dusk, skies all angry with an impending storm. I shot some from the end of the dock and then ran up to the boat. He was interested in my curiosity and gave me a little tour of the boat and some insight into how it all came together; the doors, outriggers, nets, wenches, etc. We ended up walking up to Haley’s pub on Vilano and having a few beers. He stuffed this handful of white shrimp into an old cardboard box marked for radio parts and told me not to leave them in my car.
A lot of the younger crew grew up in shrimping families. A lot of these guys have told me their parents have encouraged them to find a new line of work (the fluctuating season, prices, and regulations don’t make it the most secure career), but they seem proudly linked to their heritage, often getting shrimp and trawler tattoos to honor their trade and history. One of the younger fellows told me his tried to get a job on “the hill,” but was miserable and craved the excitement, beauty and challenge of his time on the sea, he said he’ll shrimp till he can’t.
This is Billy Bentzel, the patriarch of the dock, and one of the real “old-timers” still plying his craft. Supposedly Billy has been shrimping since he quite clamming at age 8 or something. He’s travelled all over the world working with the fishing industry. A native of Mayport, he exudes that kind of "old man and the sea” wisdom that is only gained through grit and experience. He’s got several children and grandchildren who are also in the industry. This guy talks about the seasons, the tides, technique, and weather with the naturalness of a master. He seems to be truly at home on the sea. As I mentioned before, the first time I met him he wasn’t heading out overnight due to some medical advice from his doctors. He stayed on the docks managing boats and helping out with repairs. Last time I visited I watched him pull out to sea with his daughter and Grandson, a big smile on his face. This is the guy that draws me to documenting this sub-culture and life way.
Billy and Brittany tying up the nets on Miss Joy
Timmy proudly shows off his trawler back piece.
Timmy and his wife Brittany relax, waiting for the incoming storm to pass before heading out for the night.
Timmy has a smoke while waiting out a thunderstorm
Anyone that spent time living in Linconville has know Ford "Pretty Gitty." I usually catch him down at the dock throwing out a line for redfish. He'll hang out and lend a hand as boats unload- taking home a little bucket of shrimp
The physical beauty of the old boats and the astounding light on the water is something I've heard a few shrimpers wax poetic about. I've scrolled through stunning sunrise photos on their phones, and have heard them talk about how any other line of work can't compare to the vistas and sights they witness at sea. Even the most curmudgeonly, bemoaning the dying industry, will admit they wouldn't trade those experiences for anything.
Casey is about my age, and one of the first shrimpers I got to know on the docks. We would have a few beers at the gator and he'd fill me in on all the challenges of the trade. I heard from his dad last week - that he was in the hospital with "shrimp poisoning" after getting a shrimp head stuck in his hand.
Being a shrimper at sea is mostly a balancing act. Pulling out the outriggers requires them to climb across thin beams in high seas. Here Timmy and Jessie take a break after repairing a blown bulb on the lookout.
Chad Ponce (Captain of The Triton) and Robbie Holler, mending nets after a few days at sea. Chad is a second generation (maybe 3rd? I know the boat was passed down from his father) Shrimper out of Mayport —and Robbie is a deckhand who has been working with Chad since I started loitering around the docks. Chad told me some of the Shrimpers do some side work making and mending soccer nets when the the season is slow, or shrimp prices are low. This is a regular sight, as it seems the nets need mending after every excursion. It’s amazing to see the work that goes into keeping these old boats together, and how often they’re back at the dock after some critical part faltered at sea. Luckily the captains and crews are clever engineers, and seem to be able to fix just about anything, even with limited materials.
Supposedly Captain Billy and Raymond go way back. Raymond told me he helped Billy out of a jam once, and now he gets pick of the best seafood every time his boat comes in. Here he is, "collecting," as he put it.
Dusk on the dock