Every year in the week prior to the Marathon Seafood Festival, The Weekly Newspapers features a local commercial fisherman as our Neighbor of the Week.
Though they’re becoming fewer and farther between, there are a handful of hearty souls who still make their living plying the waters around the Florida Keys for their cash crop. A great majority of them, though they’ll gladly whip up a fantastic seafood dinner for impromptu guests, prefer not to nosh on the fresh hauls from their fleet each day.
Paul Lebo, 47, is one of the few exceptions.
Danielle, his wife of 17 years and mother to Rachel, 9, and Jordan, 11, holds decades of experience in the restaurant business. Paul swears she’s the best cook he knows, and one of his favorite dishes she prepares for her family is: Jumbo Butterfly Shrimp Stuffed with Fresh Stone Crab!
In fact, he’s nearly salivating as he describes his favorite dish.
Lebo first got his taste of the salt life when he began building lobster and stone crab traps at the age of 12.
“Eventually, I got a few of my own traps and worked at a bowling alley, too,” he remembered.
By his fifteenth year, he opted to leave behind his high school studies for the lure of $75 a day to pull traps on larger commercial outfits.
One of seven children, Lebo grew up on Grassy Key.
When asked of the most memorable changes he’s witnessed as a life-long resident of the Keys, he laughed as he shared one of his favorite childhood pastimes.
“When I was growing up, at 8:30 at night, you could lay down in the middle of the highway and not have to get up for half an hour,” he compared of the increased vehicular traffic on U.S. 1.
He spent many days snorkeling and diving the shallows around his native Key with his siblings.
“If you wanted to eat, you had to go catch a lobster or spear a fish,” he laughed.
The increasing pressure on the pristine environment is one for which he worries not only about his children’s future, but the future of his chosen profession.
“The Goliath Grouper closure has allowed those fish to eat everything,” he explained. “There needs to be something to counter that imbalance.”
Lebo’s happy to put his money where his mouth is; he’s currently serving as the Vice President for Marathon’s chapter of Organized Fishermen of Florida. This organization, he explained, works directly with fisheries management at the state level. He’s also an active member of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association that works directly with the federal lobbyists and regulators.
As regulations tighten and the price of lobster is down this year, Lebo and his wife opted to secure a back up plan for the family’s income and purchased J&J Flowers last October.
“I think it’s something she’s always wanted to do,” he explained. “She used to take scraps from my traps and make picture frames. She’s always been very creative and crafty.”
He added that the one thing keeping him going each day in a struggling industry is the beauty of working for himself.
“I’ll keep doing this for a living until I can’t make any money any more,” he said firmly, adding that he’s delivered a few bouquets of flowers in the last few months to help out Danielle.
As for the possibility of grooming his son to captain the unnamed boat he calls “The Vicious Cycle” Lebo said he’ll wait for Jordan to make the decision for himself whether or not to pursue a life as a fisherman.
“We spend a lot of time out on the boat in the summertime, fishing, diving. Rachel’s more into fishing than Jordan. He’d rather be playing his video games,” Lebo laughed.
His involvement in OFF as well as serving as a director on the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors mandate that he’s heavily involved in the organization and operation of this weekend’s Seafood Festival. Look for him and his fellow fishermen as they prepare all the incredible food available for sale this weekend in the Community Park.