Former ‘Deadliest Catch’ crabber buys Conch Key marina and inn - A man sitting on a bench - Bill Wichrowski
Former TV star Erik James transforms motel and marina into a fun and funky retreat for dedicated fishermen and locals. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

Most crabbers in the Florida Keys are used to 70-plus degree temperatures while they work. But for Erik James, the new owner of the Conch Key Inn & Marina, the summer heat of the Keys is a welcome change from the snow and ice of the Bering Sea during Alaskan King Crab season.

James’ family has always been in the restaurant business, with five other establishments in Florida, but Erik himself has always been a fisherman. So much so, in fact, that he was given a chance on season 15 of Discovery’s Deadliest Catch by Captain “Wild Bill” Wichrowski, a family friend. “It was surreal. It was cool, but it got so messed up out there. You’re at war with those guys in the worst situation imaginable.” Understandably, the sub-freezing temperatures refocused James on warmer climes. “I realized that one of the happiest times of my life was when I was running a business in Captiva, Florida, checking in on my employees in the morning and fishing every day.”

Once his time on the Bering Sea was over, Erik considered multiple businesses in the Keys before stumbling across a Craigslist ad for a property on Conch Key. The ad led him to the former Bayview Inn & Motel, and by January 2019 he gave it a new name.

The newly-branded Conch Key Inn & Marina sports 11 rooms, a general store, boat slips, a jet ski rental business, a newly repaired boat ramp, and fuel pumps available to guests and locals alike. Complete with a brand new paint job and distressed nautical decor, the site features a bright tropical vibe centered around a fisherman’s lifestyle.

At the heart of James’ vision for the property is a commitment to creating a true hub where locals can find what they need and spend quality time together. “I’ve gone over to meet the kids and the families here, and they’re all just really good people. Being a part of the community here has made us blossom.” The grounds, including the pool, are open to locals, and the general store is stocked with essentials so that Conch Key residents never feel the need to leave the island (especially during drinking hours). Erik even has a list by the general store’s register where locals can request items for his next order. “We’ve got our own little oasis over here; I never really leave Conch Key,” James said. He lives on-site with his 24/7 sidekick, a chihuahua named Rico Suave.

As the business grows, James wants to help the island stay true to its fishing village roots. “My whole plan (for Conch Key) is to not lose touch with the people who grew up here and made it what it is. It’s the last commercial fishing village in the Florida Keys, and that’s part of our name here.” He plans to cater to the other fishermen who share his lifestyle. “The vibe here is different than your regular hotel, but fishermen love it.” As business continues to grow, Erik plans to become the fish market for Conch Key and sell only locally caught seafood. Except, of course, for the Alaskan King crab he plans to have brought down from Dutch Harbor.

Above all, the new venture has helped him finally find a balance between his work and passion. As he described, “I was having to pick in life between doing what I loved and doing what made money. This is the first place I found that combines what I love doing with a lot of potential. The sky is the limit, and I’m one step away from needing nothing.”

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