Fishing industry in Lee County ‘wiped out’ by Hurricane Ian

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MATLACHA, Fla. (WBBH) – Matlacha is one of the places in Southwest Florida hardest hit by Hurricane Ian: buildings have been destroyed, roads washed away and debris is everywhere.

Among the wreckage, a small lime green building – the island’s seafood market – still stands. Owner Casey Streeter had to tear out everything that was once inside.

“The front was swept away,” he recalls seeing it for the first time after the storm. “We entered through the window of this door. Our coolers floated, overturned. We had about two and a half feet of mud in the store.

But the biggest hit has been what’s behind the store. Streeter said all of their groupers were damaged by Ian, and worse, they lost their docks and cooler to the hurricane.

He added that other Pine Island fishermen were also devastated by the storm.

“The things that take the longest time to bring back and cost the most money to bring back – they’re gone,” he explained. “Even though I wanted to go fishing right now, I don’t have a place to land the fish. I have no place to process a peach. So (the boats) are actually inactive.

To the south on Fort Myers beach, idle boats are everywhere – and not just the little ones. Hurricane Ian swept away a large number of massive shrimp boats on land.

“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Jesse Clapham upon seeing the damage for the first time. “It upset me.”

Clapham is the fleet manager for Erickson and Jensen Seafood. He’s worked on shrimp boats for 35 years and he’s been through hurricanes before, but nothing like this.

“I’ve seen it before, but not our little Fort Myers beach being bulldozed,” he said.

Of the 11 boats their company operates, only one is currently fishing for shrimp. Most of the others have to be lifted by a big crane and put back in the water. It costs money and could take months to lift them all, Clapham said, not to mention the time needed for repairs.

Shrimp boats belonging to other companies and fishermen are also stranded on land. Every passing day is wasted money.

“(We) sell about a million dollars a month worth of shrimp,” Clapham explained. “And it’s all gone.”

The dockside value of Florida’s commercial fishing industry is nearly $250 million, according to the governor’s office. It generates a $9 billion impact on the state’s economy.

A significant portion of this is in Lee County.

“Wharf value, we’re executing a fishery that’s likely worth $30 million,” Streeter said, estimating the county’s worth. “Between the stone crab, the shrimp, (our) snapper grouper fishery, the mullet fishery, our blue crab fishery.”

Governor DeSantis has demand that the federal government declare a fishing disaster for the region, which would provide access to federal funding to help the industry recover.

How long who will take is the concern, explained Streeter. Other claims in the event of a claim – some of which were made more than two years ago – are still waiting.

Streeter fears help is coming too late to save something that means so much to Southwest Florida.

“Ian wiped out this fishery,” he said. “The businesses and the people who depend on these fisheries, I don’t think they realize how close we are to losing them. And how far away is help.

Streeter shared positive news. He said crews will relaunch the first shrimp boat tomorrow on Fort Myers beach.

NBC2 has reached out to Florida’s Division of Emergency Management to confirm if the state is helping fund the effort, but is still awaiting a response.

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