Fishermen & The Fish House

Fishermen & The Fish House

An examination of the management plan for county-owned commercial waterfront

Monroe County is one step closer to acquiring the 8-acre parcel known as Gulf Seafood on Stock Island. At its most recent meeting, the Monroe County Board of Commissioners approved a broad-stroke management plan, one of the requirements of the state’s Stan Mayfield Working Waterfront grant. Monroe County will pay in about $5 million, and the state grant will cover $2 million.

The need to preserve working waterfront, both fishermen and government agree, is dire.

“That’s the most dramatic visual that we have,” said Commissioner Danny Kolhage, pointing to a map with four red circles denoting former commercial working waterfront that have been developed into high-end marinas, and three yellow circles of the remaining commercial marinas on Stock Island. “That’s what’s happening to commercial fishing properties right now.”

Gulf Seafood sits on 8 acres on the southeast end of Stock Island. It currently has space for about two dozen boats, trap storage and a relatively new 2,400 square foot building that could be used as a fish house. The property owners have been struggling to make ends meet, and according to county staff, recently left town. It is operational, but also needs significant repairs to the seawall, security and the purchase and installation of a travel lift — at a cost of about $2 million. Currently, it’s in a state of receivership until the government can complete the purchase, and being operated by a group of commercial fishermen who are operating as a nonprofit to “keep the lights on.”

According to a report commissioned by the County, Monroe County landed 17.3 million pounds of seafood valued at $71.2 million in 2015. About 51 percent of that comes through Stock Island and Key West. The report estimated the value of the landings at Gulf Seafood at approximately $4.8 million during 2013.

While the need for a commercial waterfront is clear, the method of operation is not. The management plan presented to the commission for approval follows a “cooperative” model. The boats would pay annual dockage and trap storage fees (estimated at $14,500 per boat). If the property had an operational fish house, which there is capacity for, the fishermen could sell to the fish house, or sell their catch on the open market. In the case of the open market, this means selling directly to Miami fish houses that send refrigerated trucks from the mainland. The county estimates that the fishermen’s rent would cover, at the bare minimum, the $300,000 cost for administering the property which it intends to outsource. The county would negotiate a percentage of the management’s profits, and use the money to improve the parcel.

While one such cooperative recently formed on Stock Island called Safe Harbor, it is not the prevailing business model. There are two fish houses on Stock Island — Fish Busterz and the Stock Island Lobster Company. The fish house business model offers free dockage to its boats, and often emergency financial assistance. Fishermen who dock at the fish house agree to a price set by the fish house.

Mimi Stafford, speaking on behalf of the fishermen who have banded together to keep Gulf Seafood operational until the county can buy it, said that’s not the only business model.

“There’s a cooperative in northern Massachusetts that’s been in operation for 30 years,” Stafford said, adding that fishing cooperatives are springing up all over Florida with the help of the Mayfield grants. “And the fish house business model doesn’t work for everyone. Those fishermen who are business savvy, and willing to take the risk and receive a larger reward are right for the cooperative model. In fact, I believe it is progressive; it is the future.”

Lisa Tennyson is the Monroe County Director of Legislative Affairs and Grants Acquisition. She has been working on the purchase of Gulf Seafood for 10 years, since the Marine Port Advisory Committee recommended its preservation in 2006. She said the broad-stroke management plan presented to the BOCC has many details yet to be determined. She said the Request For Proposal process, where the county will seek applicants to manage the property, is an avenue to explore ideas.

“The RFP can invite any number of scenarios and solicit ideas, keeping it wide open,” Tennyson said. “We may get proposals for traditional fish houses, or we can get interesting ideas and we can pull those. We’ll see what we get.”

Peter Bacle, who owns the Stock Island Lobster Company, told the BOCC he does not support the management plan as presented.

“This plan has zero percent chance of being successful,” Bacle said. “If you start with 25 boats that can provide the revenue to cover the expense of the property, only about half a dozen boats can pay this rent on a consistent basis. And that’s not counting hurricanes, or blown engines, or the China market.

“What happens to me when I have to compete with a fish house that is subsidized by my own tax dollars? I’ve spent the last 40 years dealing with commercial fishing regulations. The final chapter is the government coming in and physically taking it over. There’s no winner in this except for a handful of fishermen that win the lottery without putting in any money.”

And that’s the other rub — what type of applicants would be eligible? Would they be local? Would they be top-producers? And how can young commercial fishermen expect to compete if they cannot afford to expand their business — buying more trap tags or additional boats — without the security of long-term waterfront space?

“We haven’t gotten to that level of detail yet,” said Tennyson. “Those are very strong, very serious concerns.” Tennyson said she plans to research eligibility criteria at similar operations and even ask for direction on RFP proposals from potential facility managers.

Kohlage said it is unknowable who will have the advantage — a cooperative fisherman or a fish house fisherman.

“We can’t require a fish house to reveal their numbers, so I just don’t know. The main focus is to preserve this as working waterfront,” said Kolhage. “If we don’t do that it will be upscale development of some kind. We know how important fisheries are to the state of Florida.”

Tennyson said the business model is secondary to the property itself. “The commercial fish house is not the primary purpose of the grant. The primary purpose of the grant is to secure the working waterfront,” she said.

Kolhage said he’s uneasy about the county entering a quasi-private sector endeavor.

“This is not something that I like to do. This is by necessity,” Kohlage said. “That’s why the state has this grant program which is designated specifically for this purpose. We don’t want to put any existing business out of business, because that would be contrary to the whole idea which is to preserve them.”

 

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