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Shrimp

My good friend Zap is on the phone, telling me the monkeys are gonna whistle tonight. Naturally I believe him. I take inventory: A T-shirt, two sweatshirts, a sleeveless exercise jacket with hood, a London Fog with hood. Bandanna, hat, two pairs of socks, sneakers. Plenty of smokes. A Thermos of piping cafe con leche, a pair of binoculars. Zap and his partner, Willie Mato, have the rest: a boat, nets, fully charged car batteries, the proper licenses, some skill and knowledge. The only other ingredient, Biscayne Bay and its population of shrimp, is sitting out there waiting for us, just like it always is. That there are shrimp in the bay is fact. That they'll end up in your net is far less certain. As Willie Mato says, "You have to go out every night, because no one ever knows when The Run will come."

As Mato's '79 Chevy truck rumbles east across the MacArthur Causeway, pulling the 24-foot wooden boat on its trailer, I see the bridge shrimpers claiming their territory and positioning their nets, and prawn pangs rise to the surface. I'm already craving a pile of fresh, fat ones. Like hundreds of other South Floridians, I'm out to eliminate the middle man: I want the shrimp to go directly from the bay to my mouth, with only a brief stop in boiling water in between.

The six or seven days before and after the full moon are considered best for shrimping. A change in weather, especially a sudden plunge in temperature, is also good. Shrimpers will tell you that the cold makes it difficult for the shellfish to grip the seaweed near bottom. A strong current helps, too. All of this is occurring as we rope the Saco de Palo ("bag of sticks") off its trailer at Watson Island and into the green water. We're expecting a haul. To me, that promises a munchfest.

To Carlos "Zap" Gonzalez and Willie Mato, it promises money. After a good night's work, Zap can set up on Coral Way with three coolers full of iced-down shrimp and a plasterboard sign that says "Fresh Shrimp" in two languages. No price mentioned, but it's usually three dollars per pound. A scale inside the open hatchback of his car is used to weigh out purchases. Likewise, Willie Mato has turned his house on SW 87th Avenue into an open-air seafood joint, complete with coolers, cutting boards, and a freezer.

Though they've known each other only a few months, Mato and Zap have entered into an informal and sometimes tenuous partnership. Both enjoy fishing and can earn some money at it, but this winter they're counting on shrimp as their main source of income, so they pitched in on the boat and they're splitting the expenses.

"You need a boat and nets, which means you need access to old nets or you have to build your own," Mato says. "You need your monofilament for the nets, which runs you about 130 bucks for each side. You have to get stainless steel wires and cleats. Then you need a retail license and a Saltwater Product License to sell the shrimp. The vessel has to be registered commercially." Add to that about $25 per excursion for fuel. All told, a start-up food-shrimp operation requires an investment of at least a few thousand dollars.

Mato and Zap can get as much as three dollars per pound for their catch, so a mere ten pounds pays the expenses for an entire trip. But sometimes they don't even net that much. When they do, everyone else is loaded up, too, so the price is likely to drop. And the boats themselves tend to suffer occasional distress, mostly the costly kind.

Still, the duo figured it wouldn't take too long to recoup their investment and begin turning a profit, but a month's worth of night trips indicated they might have been wrong. So far The Run hasn't materialized. "They're gonna come up," Zap insists, "and once they come up and the current takes 'em, that's it, bro, we clean up."

Like most of the veterans out here, my friends have rigged their craft with wing nets: two four-foot square frames with long, cone-shape mesh seines, which swivel out on either side of the boat so that the top of the net rides about a foot below the surface of the water. Apart from the live-bait-shrimp trawlers with their electric-powered nets - which are larger and drag the bay bottom, picking up sedentary as well as swimming shrimp - boats using the wing-net method seem most productive. Other shrimpers attach a single frame net to the stern, and dilettantes use dip nets, hunting and plucking.

The nets stay out of the water until someone yells, "Camarones!" But so far that sweet cry hasn't rung out from the decks of the Saco de Palo. We did see a school of sardines that exploded between the boat and the Dodge Island sea wall, and a long, cylindrical thing swimming on the surface that Zap swore was a sea snake - he's seen 'em here before. The monkeys, he added, pointing, are in those trees over there on the flat part of I-395. I looked, but I didn't see anything.

We're floating a few hundred yards from the back end of the Miami Herald Building, a mile or two north of Bayside, when Mato says, "Did you hear that?" He and Zap are up in a flash. I get the drift that something's gone wrong, but I have no idea what it could be.

Between the sodium-vaporlike glow of the big rooty-toot moon and Miami's lit-up skyscraper rainbow, it's not really dark but there's a certain desolateness when you're on a boat after midnight and it's so cold the beer can sticks to your lips. And now there's something wrong with the engine. The theme song of Gilligan's Island begins to doodle through the back of my mind as Mato and Zap remove the engine cover, step into the bilge water, and mess with the drive shaft. Adjustments are made, and we're cruising again, back to work.

With a spotlight, it's easy to see the white, finger-shape animals and their glowing orange eyes. As soon as Zap spots a handful of them, the nets come down and the scooping begins. The contents of a net - the shrimp, plus seaweed, sardines, crabs, and horrible, purple, caterpillarlike things that sting you when you touch them - is known as a "ball," and is further codified by some shrimpers as a "cocktail" (small amount), a "scampi" or "creole" (a nice haul), or a "paella" (a major load).

Shrimp that are able to avoid the perils of nets and predator fish live only about a year, spawning in open water, then navigating into the bay on currents and tides when they're a few weeks old. Then they lay low, clutching to the vegetation on the bay bottom, for about six months. As adults they rise up and re-enter the currents, heading back to the sea where their lives began. Shrimpers believe that moon phases, tide conditions, climate, the instinct to spawn, and water salinity all play a role in when the critters lift up and run. Nobody knows, though.

Zap and Mato and all the other shrimpers generally head out just before high tide and drag their nets through the outgoing currents. Shrimp also run on incoming tides, but not as often, and once the water slacks, there's no more shrimping until the next change.

As with so many things, successful shrimping requires being in the right place at the right time. Biscayne Bay is big, and while one boat searches fruitlessly near Dodge Island, another might be loading up near Key Biscayne. Boaters use radio to network with friends. "Mostly they tell you when they're not catching anything," says Mato, "but everybody has a few people who'll share information." The shrimpers have nicknames for different parts of the bay - Gato Negro, Dog Leg, and the like. "I say, `We got action at the Dog Leg,'" Zap explains, "and nobody knows where the hell I'm talking about." Nobody except the members of his clique.

Having made our way from the square of water formed by the Herald building to the west and the MacArthur and Venetian causeways to either side, over to Dodge Island and the Port of Miami, then zigging back to Fisher Island, we've managed to land a little more than twenty pounds of bay beauties. It's taken six hours in the big chill and cost my friends a broken net, which snapped because it had been positioned wrong as we made a turn on the way home. Tonight's catch, 22 pounds, is about enough for Zap and Mato to break even - a scampi at best.

"I would never sell a shrimp," says Gaetan Lemire, peering down at the water from atop the MacArthur Causeway bridge. A blue crab is swimming through the glow of the spotlights that belong to the few dozen hopefuls out here, and Lemire points and chuckles. He hasn't yet dropped his homemade frame net into the water tonight - not enough action to justify the effort - but it's still early, and he and his wife, Denise, say they're enjoying the balmy night, the stars, the fat moon, and the downtown light show.

Like the boaters, whose unmistakable green-over-white navigational lights create their own galaxy on the dark saltwater, bridge shrimpers range from serious workers trying to net rent money to casual outdoorsmen seeking only a good time and, perhaps, a scampi or two. Gaetan Lemire, from Montreal, has wintered here for years, mostly to fish. Four years ago a friend showed him the wonders of bridge shrimping. During runs, Lemire has hoisted up as much as 35 pounds in one night. Sometimes, he says, he'll be out here five hours and go home empty-handed. "It's a sport for me," the 63-year-old retired engineer says. "I enjoy doing it. I got the kick."

"I'm just starting," says Steve Allis, who is, along with his friend Shirley Thompson, among the few people on the old Rickenbacker Causeway bridge one evening before The Run. "I haven't gotten anything yet. I'm still just learning about the runs." During the day he works at a Home Depot. "This is something to do," he says, pointing at the crisply rippling bay water below. "It's a full moon, a clear night. All the stars. This is Miami. I caught four whole shrimp last night. But this is a not very expensive way to really enjoy yourself."

On the night The Run finally began, Mato and Zap, working the waters around Dodge Island and the Herald building, came up with only a few pounds. At the same time people shrimping from the old bridge of the Rickenbacker were hauling in 50, 60, even 80 pounds. "That's because of the southeast wind," explains one bridge shrimper, requesting anonymity until he gets his licenses renewed. "In the north part of the bay, you have construction, bridges, sea walls. From the Rick you've got shrimp coming from the wide-open south part of the bay - it's open water all the way almost to Key Largo. We're talking like 40 miles of open water to the south. People were raking for an hour and a half, till about 8:00 that night. The tide just started going out at about 6:00. The shrimp have already spawned, and once they do that, they head to sea." After dishing up these facts, he opines, "Right now the boats should be doing at least 100 pounds, otherwise they shouldn't even bother being out here."

Part Two
Having boated for shrimp last year and worked the bridges with his big frame net this season, he knows a bit about serious harvesting, but he took a lantern and dip net and worked from the sea wall behind the Herald building. "I rigged the lantern to a pole and stuck it out over the water," he explains. "The current doesn't really come close enough to the wall to dip 'em. After a couple of hours, though, they started coming in - jumbos, man. They'd swim right to the sea wall and sort of bounce off it. These shrimps were buzzed, man." He scooped more than twenty pounds, a good percentage consisting of big, fat specimens. (He likes to bread his and deep-fry them.)

It's illegal to shrimp (or fish) from state roads, including the MacArthur Causeway. That's just one of about 36 million regulations shrimpers have to worry about. But shockingly, when it comes to shrimping, the Department of Transportation has somehow maintained a firm grasp on sanity almost unheard of in affairs governmental. "Ordinarily, fishing and shrimping are not allowed on the bridges," says DOT spokesman David Fierro, starting out officiously. "If there were a problem, we'd use that law. But we don't spend a lot of time throwing people off bridges. Is it a high enough priority to go hassle somebody? If there was a specific complaint, if we heard about something unsafe, a guy up on a ledge trying to cast or something, we'd take action. That's to protect someone from getting hurt. But we are aware of the reality of the day-to-day."

The Florida Marine Patrol is aware of the day-to-day, too. "It's a madhouse," says Capt. Mike Lamphear, the District 6 deputy commander for the Marine Patrol. A new set of shrimping laws - 23 pages worth - arrived on his desk in early January, and it is the Patrol's duty to enforce those rules. "There are an awful lot of rules and regulations," confides Lamphear, "but the reason for all those is to protect the resources." The limit, incidentally, is five gallons of shrimp per person, with no license required for Florida residents. Boaters are required to purchase a fishing license, or a Saltwater Product License. (The latter eliminates the constraint on quantity.) You might think Lamphear, who misses the days he spent cruising the seas full-time, would bemoan the popularity of bay shrimping, especially the nonboat kind, which probably could be construed as illegal under one law or another. Far from it. "It's a great way for a family to go out and have a good time at night," he declares. "When you take the whole family, you discover that the shrimp isn't that important. You go to a sea wall with your gas lantern and dip nets and enjoy some lovely nights. This one guy tells me he only got 22 shrimp. I say, `Sorry to hear it.' And he says, `No, it was a wonderful time.' I was mildly surprised that catching shrimp didn't mean that much. But think about it - the family gets to spend time together on a pretty night, enjoying the area, talking to each other, listening to each other. Catching one shrimp was a major event for one kid I met out there. It's pretty much just a lot of fun."

If you want to find a spoilsport, talk to Mike Poller. "It scares me when I see that place filled with lights," says the fisherman and member of the environmental group Earth First! A 30-year-old advertising copy writer who's lived in Miami since he was a toddler, Poller detests shrimpers. "If I had a Mustang airplane, I'd bomb the place," he says of a bay filled with boats and dip nets. "The shrimp are the base of the food chain. I've watched over the past seven years, watched the number of shrimpers expand exponentially, seen the shrimp decline and the fish that feed off them decline."

Poller takes his Maverick out for tarpon at night, casting around the Government Cut area for the popular catch-and-release sport fish. "To get out there on a full moon, especially on a weekend, I have to thread through thousands of boats from Mercy Hospital to the end of Government Cut," he complains. "I've seen people with far more than their limits. They'll go on and on until all the shrimp are out of the bay and it will collapse and that will be the end of it. Your grandchildren will see the first underwater desert. During the summer, I fish outside the Coral Gables waterway for snapper. I always see the commercial trawlers, dragging chains and lead pipes across sea grass and tearing it out by its roots. They catch ten pounds of stuff, and nine pounds will be fin fish and one pound will be shrimp. They sit there with their lights on the water and toss the bycatch overboard. These are juvenile fish mostly and as they're tossing the bycatch over, adult ladyfish, barracuda, and shark sit behind the shrimp boat and eat entire future generations of fish as they're tossed over by the shrimpers."

Poller's apocalyptic vision is not shared by the minuscule portion of the population that researches all things crustacean. Pinfish, for example, account for the bulk of the "bycatch," and although they comprise a genuine link on the food chain, they aren't by any means an endangered species, nor are they useful to humans for anything other than bait. A 1985 study, conducted by two University of Miami scientists and a researcher from the University of Florida, found that, excluding pinfish, the average haul of the trawlers that mine the bay year-round includes only 14.6 percent bycatch. And no one's really sure what happens to the live fish culled from the shrimp nets and tossed back into the bay. According to the UM research, which used figures tabulated from 1971 to 1983, "the fishery has not significantly affected the habitat's ability to function as a shrimp nursery."

The researchers also stated that more study is needed. "While natural mortality is undoubtedly quite high among these small juvenile fishes, and the estimated total catch of these species by the bait shrimp fleet is relatively small," the study noted, "the effect of the fishery on subsequent gamefish recruitment cannot be evaluated without knowing the magnitude of fishing mortality relative to all other sources of natural mortality."

Jimbo Luznar spits out a hunk of his all-day cigar, looks me square in the eyes, and says, "I've been working in this bay for 36 years now, been in the same spot for 34 years, and the bay's better than I've ever seen. I don't know what the hell everybody's so worried for."

The folks at Jimbo's on Virginia Key - also known as Jimmy the Shrimper's - say Bear Cut was the best place to be during the recent Run. "No one realized it, but all the shrimp were going out through there," says Lu Porter, who's worked at Jimbo's for a decade. "The UM guys came over and said they had to clean out their strainers because they were clogged with shrimp."

Porter is relaxing on the front porch of Jimbo's with a few of the regulars and the resident population of assorted dogs. Around back, where two ancient trawlers are berthed, some sort of model shoot is being conducted on the docks. Porter says she moved south from Massachusetts after her husband died. Her daughter Cara, who also worked for Jimbo, crafted from a Massachusetts barrel stay the warped JIMBO'S sign that hangs over the doorway. Jimbo's specializes in live shrimp, sold mostly to trucks that distribute bait to wholesalers. Jim Luznar - a.k.a Jimmy the Shrimper, a.k.a. Jimbo - is generally considered to be the top expert on shrimping in Biscayne Bay. He's been at it fortysome years, so long that even the University of Miami scientists send information seekers to him.

"Wanna see a Polish trailer?" Jimmy the Shrimper asks. "Follow me." He walks around his wooden headquarters and along a row of rickety trailers, until I finally get the joke. "You're the 78th person to fall for that one," he laughs. If Jimbo Luznar, who turns 65 in April, doesn't know everything about shrimp, he certainly speaks as an authority on chinch bugs (they're alcoholics, moving into wilting grass for the fermented juice), bocce (more strategy than baseball; the greatest game ever; he built a court at Jimbo's), and how to rear children (let them explore, use psychology, and be equally proud whether they follow in your rubber-boot steps, like two of his five, or go to college for nine years to become a corporate lawyer, like his youngest just did).

Luznar was a merchant marine who thought shrimping would make him a millionaire by the time he turned 25. He worked as a shrimper in New Smyrna Beach, up the coast a bit, for about ten years, and when he moved back down to Miami, he docked his boats behind what is now the Miami Herald Building. "That was poor-class property back then," he recalls. "Rats as big as cats in the daytime. The Herald bought it and said they were going to use a sea wall where our boats were tied up." Luznar moved his operation over to Virginia Key, and he's been there ever since. He stopped going out on the boats a few years ago after spending a dark, stormy night alone on the water. "The nets were filling with trash," he says, "and I knew I had to get them out." His hand got wrapped in the winch chain. "Got a plastic joint in this finger," he says, holding up his right hand, scarred and gnarled. An amazing hand. A good hand to shake.

For more than two decades Luznar has voluntarily assisted researchers, including a number from UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. He describes himself as a "naturalist," but he's also a realist, a man who's seen too much to believe in supernatural forces. Florida law says Turtle Excluder Devices - vertical bars that hang in front of the shrimping nets and that are required by law for trawlers - must be no more than three inches apart. Luznar's are only an inch and a half apart. "I like them," he says.

As far as other environmental concerns, Luznar is more than willing to discuss a few of his theories. "Twenty years ago," he says, "everyone was spraying parathion and DDT. There were probably 800,000 homes with yards in South Florida, and everybody was spraying their lawns. That stuff is nonbiodegradable and it ended up in the bay. The bay is full of it." Once the chemicals were banned and the poisons became silted over at sea bottom, sealed off from the water, the fish and pelicans and other sea life made a significant comeback. Just count the pelicans now, Luznar suggests; just look at all the shrimp out in the bay right now.

Part Three
"I've studied this thing," Luznar goes on. "The reason you don't see as many pompano, the reason the redfish propagation program won't work, is because these are shellfish eaters. Shellfish need a mix of fresh and saltwater. We should be propagating shellfish to start with. The way to do that is open the dams of the freshwater canals of South Florida and let the water flow naturally. And of course we have to get a million and a half people out of Dade County. The problem is not overfishing. It's what we do to the habitat."

When Luznar first started shrimping, trawl nets weren't equipped with rollers. "Back then we'd drag stuff off the bottom," he says. "Now they roll right over anything that's on bottom. You pull up the ball," he continues, explaining how the trawlers work, "and that goes on a tray with bars and the shrimp and little fish fall through into the live well. You have to keep them alive by law, you can't have more than seven [recently changed to five] pounds of dead shrimp on a live-bait trawler. The rest of the catch goes back in; we just slide it off the tray into the water. You work your ass off. It's the hardest damn work."

And of course Jimmy the Shrimper eats bay shrimp. "You think I'd be sick of it," he says. "I wouldn't give you a nickel for a carload of smoked fish, but shrimp I never get tired of. I'll eat 'em every day if they're around and they're big enough." He puts his in a plastic bag and microwaves them in their own juices, then dips them in Dixie cups, one filled with garlic and butter, the other with horseradish and ketchup.

On the bridges and in the bay, shrimpers have had their little skirmishes. During The Run, when bridge space is at a premium, some harvesters set up their nets early, then take off, leaving them untended but their slot secured. When the shrimp come, they're back and ready for action, which peeves late arrivals. And anyone who's shrimped by boat will tell you stories about bridgers tossing fishing sinkers at their vessels. "Yeah, and I'll toss a damn sinker right back at them," says Zap, distilling the essential attitude of bay shrimpers.

"Florida is number one for any boating crimes," confirms Marine Patrol veteran Mike Lamphear. "You have that conflict between bridge shrimpers and between them and boats. Sinker fights. Or the old, `I have a shotgun.' Or flare gun. Conflicts are another reason for the rule that boats can't shrimp within 1000 feet of a bridge. It's all grounded in safety."

Besides saving the shrimpers from themselves and the sea, the Marine Patrol regulates retail sales of locally caught seafood. And again, Capt. Lamphear will tell you that the primary concern is safety. "We try to educate the public as we go," he says. "If we can teach them, we'd rather teach than arrest them. Part of our job is to protect and preserve the shrimp fishery. If you bring them in to sell to the public, you must keep shrimp at the proper temperature and you must keep them in a nonporous hold. Shrimp spoil very rapidly, so you have to keep them in as good a condition as possible. No one wants to sell bad shrimp. And one thing about them is you don't need a sign. If they're not fresh, they stink."

The shrimp Zap sells on Coral Way are fresh, but that hasn't kept away the law. One day in January, after he'd weighed out five pounds of shrimp for a woman in a Mercedes, she broke the bad news: she was a Marine Patrol officer. "She was really nice about it," Zap says, "but she wrote me up for not having a retail license."

The next day Zap got his paperwork in order. "It cost $75, but now I could sell stone crabs at the Marine Patrol," he says. "I look at it as they're just doing their job. That's the way it is. They also told me about these things they call a `trip ticket.' You fill out these slips, with a species code and all this other stuff, and you send it to them. Right, bro. But I thought about it, and I told Willie, `Let's just send them in.' People are gonna destroy this bay with all these boats, oil, trawlers.... So I'm gonna send them the trip tickets. It might help. And I want to be totally legal."

After The Run began in earnest, Zap and Mato reported several decent trips. "I been sleeping and shrimping and sleeping and shrimping and selling and shrimping and sleeping," hoarsed a tired Zap, home from a big night. "We got about 40 pounds. But the steering broke. We had to tie a rope to the rudder.... All the repairs should come to about $180." Minimum loss: $60. Not much later, after one too many arguments over money, Zap and Willie Mato parted ways, victims of the truism that two men should never share the same woman or a boat.

I talked another friend, a fisherman and fellow bay lover who doesn't know much about dipping, either, into a shrimping expedition. We left downtown at 3:30 on a gorgeous afternoon, headed for Key Biscayne to pick up his seventeen-foot boat, a spotlight, and dip nets. A call from work delayed us an hour, and when we got to the Winn-Dixie on Key Biscayne for supplies, a sign on the door said: "This store closes permanently today."

By the time we hit the water, about three hours after we'd planned, Eddie and I were thinking that shrimping might not have been such a great idea after all. But skimming across the bay with the air just cool enough to keep us from sweating, it felt like we'd escaped a prison and were gliding on freedom's foundation. The stars burned like embers, the water seemed alive. And there were shrimp everywhere. We scooped some, poked around awhile, and I thought I was going to lose a finger when a blue crab got tangled in the net.

We shrimped a bit more after Eddie got over the hilarity of my struggle with the blue, then cruised under the old bridge at Rickenbacker. The place was lit up brighter than day from the unreal glow of spotlights. Ropes sloped up at 45-degree angles from the frame nets in the water to their tenders on the bridge. The row of white floats buoying the frames made a fence from the end of the bridge to near the middle, where it arches too high for shrimping.

All told, Eddie and I landed a decent creole out of our short effort. But that was hardly the point. We saw skate and baby lobster and laughed like hell when the shrimp managed to dodge us. One of the suckers leaped straight out of the net as if he were a tarpon. We talked and we listened and we absorbed the beauty of Biscayne Bay at night.

The moon is full again this week. I'm still hungry. And I never did hear those monkeys whistle.


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