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Keeping It Reel on Pine Island

Through good times and bad, Pine Islanders cling to their fishing village lifestyle, even as farming and the arts grow ever more important.



Ed Chappell

 

“If someone asks me one more time where the beach is, I swear...”

Sean McQuade, who’s having breakfast one morning with his wife, Nicole Lauber McQuade, and father-in-law, Rich Lauber, grins broadly. He’s good-humored in his exasperation, but as a commercial fisherman/charter fishing guide/firefighter, he’s not kidding about how often he faces that question.

Rich Lauber and Nicole Lauber McQuade

Truth is, Pine Island is not that kind of island.

Shorelines, yes, postcard-perfect ones like those featuring fishing piers at the island’s tip, but no beaches. That gives this 17-mile-long strip—the largest of Lee County’s barrier islands—a unique identity among its better-known cousins, Sanibel, Captiva and Estero islands, and a story unto its own. 

This is a land first settled by the Calusa, later invaded by the Spanish and much more recently occupied by the rough-and-tumble commercial fishermen who dominated Nicole’s youth and prompted dad to put strict limits on his daughter’s after-hours whereabouts. “My dad told me, ‘If I find you hanging out (at certain bars), I’ll fire your ass.’” Rich, who’d employed his daughter at the family-run Sandy Hook restaurant, nods in confirmation. The farmers are here, too, growers of tropical fruit and landscape palms. Their large holdings promise to maintain the island’s rural feel, though the threat of development is ever looming.

Today, Pine Island is a community in flux. A 1995 constitutional amendment banning gill net fishing brought the island’s fishing industry to its knees and opened the door to an entirely new crowd. Hurricane Charley walloped it in 2004. The real estate crash in the mid-2000s limited the demand for landscaping plants, slowed tourism and shrunk the spending cash in residents’ hands. A bridge project dragged on for five long years. And last December, the City of Cape Coral voted to annex five acres of land that it purchased five years ago in Matlacha, the island’s easternmost village, stirring fears of encroachment, overdevelopment, environmental degradation and the island’s self-determination, even if it is under county jurisdiction. 

“But no matter how much people bicker back and forth, when something happens, they all come together,” Nicole says.

These islanders are a hardy bunch.

Just ask the families who survived the net ban.

In the industry’s heyday, some 300 fishermen populated Pine Island, one of the highest concentrations in the United States, says longtime islander Rhonda Dooley. Her husband, Mike, is a commercial fisherman. So was his father, and so is their son, Shane, one of the few in his generation continuing the tradition.

“It really changed the whole character of the island,” Rhonda says. She is joined in her kitchen by Mike and their daughter, Summer, a teacher who’d recently returned to Pine Island from an 8-year stint in Orlando, having missed her birthplace’s small-town feel. She joined the staff of her former stomping grounds, Pine Island Elementary, the island’s only school.

The amendment was sold to voters as marine conservation and fisheries protection, though the Dooleys and other longtime fishing families frame it as a battle between commercial fishermen and the better-funded recreational anglers. The commercial fishermen became so vilified, Rhonda says, that they loathed going out in public during the amendment’s campaign.

After the ban and an ensuing bout of additional regulations, some families moved away. There were divorces. Rhonda’s friend, artist Mel Meo, recalls at least two suicides. Fish houses closed. Small businesses shuttered.

“We felt it was a conspiracy that they kept tightening and tightening and tightening the restrictions until we were just wiped out,” Rhonda says.

But some, including Shane Dooley, are navigating the changes. “He works hard,” Summer says admiringly of her brother, who runs a charter fishing boat, a crab boat and a mullet boat. “He has such as passion for it.”

And he’s not alone.

Eddie Barnhill settles behind his desk at the fish house he opened on behalf of his family-owned company, Barnhill Fisheries Inc., last October. Three months later, the place smells of new construction—and, of course, fresh fish.

Eddie Barnhill of Barnhill Fisheries

“The ones of us that were gonna stay in this business, we had to adapt,” says Barnhill, a burly man in his 40s who’s been fishing since he was about 7 years old.

And adapt he has. Following the amendment, Barnhill and his father dove into the stone crab business, and according to him, the family became the island’s biggest producer of the crustaceans. These days, Barnhill’s interests are less on the water (he hired a captain to run his personal boat) and more in the business of retailing and promoting Pine Island’s bounty.

A couple of years ago, he says, he ran into challenges moving his product through existing fish houses (which buy fish from boat captains and resell them) and decided to start his own. His first location was a little outpost in Matlacha, now in the hands of his sister, Carrie Barnhill Grainger, who operates it as a retail seafood market (with plenty of cooler space devoted to their mother’s homemade Key lime pies). The expanded location at Pine Island Center, Barnhill hopes, will allow him to aggressively push Gulf seafood to markets everywhere.

“We’ve built this to help all the other fishermen,” Barnhill says.

His real wish? To bring back the mullet. Pine Islanders used to catch so many of the species that outsiders dubbed them “mullet heads.” Between the net restrictions and waning interest in the fish (many dismiss it as “bait fish”), the mullet suffered a serious fall from grace. Barnhill is busy seeking new markets for it, including a New York restaurant chain that he thinks he has hooked.

“I’ve always wanted to re-create the mullet. I want to be the guy to bring it back,” he says. 

 

As commercial fishing declined, islanders continued harvesting a very different kind of bounty: tropical fruits and plants. Pine Island is famous for its mangoes (Summer Dooley, in fact, serves as this year’s Mango Queen) and for producing the palms and other native plants favored by landscapers. About 3,400 acres are designated for agriculture, according to the Lee County Property Appraiser.

That industry has weathered its own blows—principally Hurricane Charley and the real estate crash—but any good farmer knows how to hedge his or her bets.

“I love farming, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” says Steve Cucura, the owner of FruitScapes. He grows fruit trees and other edibles (including exotics that he’s collected from across the globe) and, with partnering Pine Island Tropicals, runs the Pine Island Tropical Fruit Market on Stringfellow Road.

He’d come to Pine Island by way of Virginia looking to get into farming. His first job—taken to pay the bills while he established a lychee grove—was at the fruit stand he now owns, which at the time sold mangoes on weekends. Nine years ago, he bought the property and introduced a new business model. Cucura grows fruit trees, which he sells to farmers and backyard growers alike, and offers them a chance to sell their harvest at his market.

“Every year, there is more and more demand for tropical fruit, and there is not enough fruit to fill the demand,” Cucura says. Land isn’t getting any cheaper, he adds, and he sees his model as one way to increase the availability of produce, while helping out the people who grow it.

 

They say nature abhors a vacuum, and the same might be true of vacant property. When the commercial fishermen pulled out, they left behind little cabins along Matlacha Pass. The artists moved in, one by one, transforming the exteriors into works of art as colorful as the wares they peddled inside. The most famous is the artistically flamboyant Leoma Lovegrove. But plenty of others have established galleries, too, growing their own artistic reputations as well as that of Matlacha as a destination for visual art.

Mel Meo

Mel Meo arrived on Pine Island as a 13-year-old in 1970 because her grandparents found Sanibel too crowded even then and her mother, part-Cherokee, was drawn to the island’s Native American heritage. Meo, for her part, was “horrified” at being wrested from home and friends, but she learned to find solace in nature and in art. “I used to roam the Indian mounds with my watercolors and paint everything I saw,” she says one afternoon in the tent-shaded, backyard workshop behind her gallery. She was one of the first resident artists when she opened shop initially in 1994. She was married to a commercial fisherman then, and her shop featured her artwork and her famed “mullet dogs,” mullet fritters and Key lime tarts. She closed in 2000, the dark years after the net ban, and re-emerged as a gallery owner in 2013 after her former space again became available for rent.

“There’s like a wave of nostalgia now—but coming from the new people,” Meo says. Her customers want depictions of the old fish houses and weathered fishermen she painted some 30 years ago. “Maybe they want what they’ve missed.”

She misses those days, too, but she’s also ready to push into new subject matter and push her art to audiences beyond island tourists. “There are so many things to paint. I just see stuff every day,” she says.

The artists aren’t the only creative types. Writers—the most famous being Randy Wayne White and Robert Macomber—populate the island. Musicians, including the well-known local band Strange Arrangement, favor the island, and live music spills out from bars and restaurants on otherwise quiet evenings.

 

The only sure thing about change is that it’s bound to happen. Nicole Lauber McQuade watches it play out in the dining room of her family’s restaurant.

“The island itself has really turned around from what used to be a strong fishing and mullet community to a more eclectic group now. You still have the fishing, you still have the guys walking around with no shoes on or just off the boat, but you have sitting across the table somebody all artsy,” she says. “It’s starting to blend.”

The fight over Cape Coral’s annexation, she continues, is pulling together islanders from all walks of life. Online there are robust debates over matters like community development and preservation.

The island isn’t the Wild West of a place it was when the older generations were coming up; seasonal traffic in Matlacha can ensnare drivers for nearly an hour. Nevertheless, the sign greeting them over the bridge rings true: Life really does run on “island time.”

“It’s laid-back. We don’t have the beach, which is our salvation,” Meo says. “I just call it home, for lack of better words. I don’t know any other home.”

Meo’s sentiments are echoed over at the Dooley place.

“I feel like growing up in this small community, this island community, really molded and shaped me into who I am,” says Summer Dooley. “And now I’ve moved back, and I am seeing kids go through the same process I did, and I can be a part of their lives.”

“Our roots are here,” her mother says.

Adds her father: “We built this house ourselves. Every nail. Every board.”

No amount of change can take that away.

The Dooley family first settled in Matlacha in the early 1900s, back when it was known as Pine Island Fill. Pictured are Shane Dooley; his wife, Sherry, and baby Hunter; Summer Dooley; Rhonda Dooley; Mike Dooley; and Shane's older son, Dalton.

 

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