As the morning sunlight paints the sea in cool pastels that evolve into a warm glow, a fertile coast promises the bounty of a new day.
On the edge of the Atlantic Ocean at Florida’s largest river, the St. Johns, the First Coast stretches from Amelia Island, through Jacksonville and on down to St. Augustine. It was in these fertile estuaries, where the salt water merged with calm, freshwater inlets, that the Timucuan Indians settled and thrived on shrimp. Early European settlers, too, dined on fresh shrimp, yet for centuries it was consumed strictly by locals. It would take a revolution in industry for the rest of the continent to get a taste for just how delicious and nutritious these little crustaceans can be.
Innovations in shrimping practices can be traced back to Amelia Island, according to Gray Edenfield’s book “Amelia Island, Birthplace of the Modern Shrimping Industry.” With local net profits in the 1800s, the shrimping industry would soon evolve into a national sensation, thanks to the expansion of American railways and the addition of ice cars. Tracks were laid right next to the docks, allowing shrimpers to freight their catch farther north than ever before. Once the shrimp reached New York, strategic negotiating and clever sales tactics led to a shrimping boom. And as New Yorkers deemed shrimp a tasty dish, the rest of the nation followed.
Out of 2,000 species of shrimp, around 300 are consumed by humans, including brown, white, pink and rock shrimp fished here. Americans eat shrimp to the tune of four pounds per person annually—although many First Coast families consume that much in a weekend—and it is considered the most popular seafood in the country, with an annual impact of $4 billion, according to the National Fisheries Institute.
Shrimp reign on area menus, whether paired with the datil pepper in ceviche, sauteed and served over grits or golden fried on a po’boy. Travelers can get their fill at upscale, white tablecloth establishments with James Beard-nominated chefs or at seafood shacks and fish camps located right on the docks, like Safe Harbor and Singleton’s in Mayport. Local chefs and restaurateurs are making headlines with their innovative dishes and creative ways of carrying on the Southern tradition of dining. Never has the question of sourcing and sustainability been more important to the local palate.
“It is so exciting to be able to use locally sourced, wild-caught shrimp in our restaurant,” said executive sous chef Alex Baker of Jacksonville restaurant Hobnob, speaking of Pancit, their signature Filipino dish with shrimp and noodles. “It is a marriage of exactly what we stand for: global cuisine with local intentions.”
James Beard-nominated chef Tom Gray, with Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, explains his inspiration for locally sourced shrimp dishes. “As a kid growing up in North Florida, I remember bringing home fresh shrimp with my family from roadside stands, which was relatively common to see back in the day. They are a rare sight today, but it was always a treat to get the fresh shrimp home, and we would eat them for days.”
One of his diners’ favorite shrimp creations is his shrimp and grits dish, which is served with flavorful house-made pork sausage, charred tomatoes and three cheeses.
One might assume that with such a large sustainable supply, and such high demand, the local shrimping industry would be at an all-time high, but this is not the case. Capt. Kevin McCarthy, owner of Amelia River Cruises confided, “The majority of shrimp Americans consume is imported from shrimp farms in Asia and South America.”
McCarthy is a passionate shrimping advocate whose family is tied to four generations of shrimpers on the island. He says the conditions in which the farm-raised shrimp are grown are not always the highest quality, bringing into question the overall benefit and safety of consuming them.
Local shrimping is highly sustainable, provides healthier shrimp and boosts the local economy—not to mention the shrimp just tastes great. The threat is not a matter of supply and demand, rather one of costs associated to rising restrictions on shrimpers and the ability to compete with cut-throat rates from imported farm-raised shrimp.
Longtime residents remember when the docks in Fernandina Beach, Mayport and St. Augustine were lined with the silhouettes of shrimp boat fleets and the resounding pleas of hungry seagulls. No more than a dozen ships can be seen migrating in and out of the estuaries today, as old timers keep the faith and continue their passionate search for daily catch.
But as more and more consumers become educated about the importance of local sourcing, and with more local chefs emphasizing fresh catch, demand can bring back the glory of what once was. Request local, wild-caught shrimp when you dine, and even load up a cooler to take Mayport shrimp back home with you. You will not only taste the difference, but you will help preserve the rich legacy of First Coast shrimping and the treasure it truly is.