Through the past seven decades, fishing families in Southwest Florida have faced years of prosperity and years of adversity, and their fishery traditions have left an indelible stamp on Florida’s cultural heritage.
Their remarkable stories and prospects for survival have been captured in two films documenting the saga of the seafood industry in Fort Myers Beach. Joy Hazell, Florida Sea Grant agent with UF/IFAS Extension in Lee County, partnered with the area’s PBS affiliate, WGCU, to help produce the videos so area residents and visitors can learn about local seafood and the cultured tied to it.
The first film, Pink Gold Rush, was released in 2014 and broadcast on 37 stations nationwide. The film, which chronicled the lives of shrimpers in the pink shrimp industry, won the regional Edward R. Murrow Award for news documentary and the People’s Choice Award at the Fort Myers Beach Film Festival.
Similar to the California Gold Rush, the pink shrimp industry is often referred to as a “boom and bust” industry because of its rapid growth and quick decline.
Pink shrimp were discovered in 1949, and by the 1970s, there were hundreds of vessels harvesting what the shrimpers referred to as “pink gold.” But, due to increased regulations, fuel prices and competition, fewer than 40 operate out of San Carlos Island today.
Hazell said the films use captivating visuals and historical footage to tell the story in a powerful, new way.
“Lee County has economic value tied to their commercial fisheries but very little citizen awareness of that value,” she said. “Since 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported we wanted to educate citizens on the seafood products brought in from local fishermen as well as the importance of healthy estuaries and coastal waters to commercial fisheries.”
The second film, set to be released in April, focuses on the region’s commercial striped mullet fishery. The Gulf Coast contributes approximately 85 percent of the state’s striped mullet landings, most of which takes place along in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties.
“All along the Gulf Coast, mullet have played a major part in our economy and culture,” said Hazell, who is listed as an associate producer on the film. “Mullet follow the story of many fisheries in the United States, undergoing increasing pressure throughout the 1980s to a shrinking fishery today due to environmental, social and political concerns. Although well-loved by many Floridians, mullet are not commonly served in local restaurants and the majority of today’s catch is exported to Asia for its coveted roe, or eggs, which is a culinary delicacy.”
To get a gauge on the success of the mullet documentary, Hazell is surveying restaurants in her area to see which ones serve local mullet. She is going to survey the same businesses again after the film is released to see if there was a change.
“Through a documentary like this we have the potential to reach and educate tens of thousands of residents and visitors,” she said.
Hazell first became involved in the documentaries after discussing it with a colleague at Lee County Department of Natural Resources who came up with the idea. She then applied for a grant from the West Coast Inland Navigation District to pay for the filming and production.
“Once I received the grant I called WGCU, the local TV station, to see if they wanted to partner which really raised the production quality and distribution bars,” Hazell said.
Along with being featured and interviewed in the film, Hazell helped the director gather contacts who she thought would help tell the fishery story. She also organized the six screenings of Pink Gold Rush throughout her county.
Hazell said her favorite part of this project was being able to engage with the commercial fishermen in a positive way, and seeing their reaction to the film. Based on the success of Pink Gold Rush, she hopes to continue these mini-documentaries into a new hour-long series about local commercial fishing.
“When the shrimp one first aired I was shocked how many people I know saw it on WGCU and how it highlighted a culture they had no knowledge of,” she said. “It also generated great discussions of the value of commercial fisheries, questions about sustainability of fisheries and how global issues affect local economies.”
To view Pink Gold Rush, visit http://www.pinkgoldrush.com/watch-and-learn/.