Pink Gold

The next generation of shrimping comes into its own on San Carlos Island.

On a clear and sunny Thursday morning, three shrimp boats arrive early at the docks on Fort Myers Beach. They tie off and wait their turn to unload at the shrimp house owned by Erickson & Jensen, which has been on San Carlos Island since 1965. The shrimp house is a cavernous structure with plywood floors and an open ceiling. On this particular morning, an industrial fan in the corner blows hot air and a radio plays Savage Love by Jason Derulo. The cries of gulls and the clink of boat rigging can be heard from the wharf. Inside, the air smells of fresh shrimp, the scent of the sea. A small crew of day-pay workers mill around, smoking and looking at their phones. They are mostly men, their skin tanned and their faces lined from years spent near the water.

At the center of the room stands Anna Erickson. She’s dressed in a pair of green khaki shorts and a Grateful Dead T-shirt, green Crocs on her feet. Her brown hair is tossed up in an easy bun and her blue eyes snap as she calls out directions in a no-nonsense voice. “OK, focus, focus. These four and then done,” she says. Yesterday was Erickson’s 34th birthday party, and the crew this morning is running a little slower than usual.

A conveyor belt leads from the shrimp house to one of the shrimp boats tied up at the dock outside. Purple mesh bags of pink Gulf shrimp start sliding in. At Erickson’s direction, a man pulls on a pair of gloves and starts stacking the sacks of shrimp on a palette. Erickson moves to a counter against the side wall, and inspects a sample of shrimp coming off the boat. She weighs them, counts them, calls out numbers and makes notes on a clipboard. “OK, we’re good to go,” she says.

The palette is forklifted out of the shrimp house, and Erickson picks up a broom and starts sweeping out the dried shrimp legs that have scattered across the floor. One of the guys off the shrimp boat comes riding in on the conveyor belt. He looks like a young Willie Nelson. He has his arms outspread and he’s grinning like, “Does anyone see this?” Erickson tells him yesterday was her birthday, and he hops off the belt and gives her a big hug, “Well, happy birthday,” he says.

“We consider ourselves a shrimp family,” Erickson tells me later, talking about her crew of unloaders, captains and shrimp workers on the docks. “We love each other.”

Anna Erickson heads up her family’s shrimping business, Erickson & Jensen, on San Carlos Island, where they have been shrimping for four generations. The city’s shrimping heritage is usually celebrated in March with the Fort Myers Shrimp Festival, though it’s on pause this year due to the pandemic.

Today, there are only two shrimping companies still on San Carlos Island, Erickson & Jensen and Trico. Erickson & Jensen is the larger of the two, with 12 boats, diesel tanks, a ship’s store and an unloading house.

The Ericksons have been shrimping for four generations. The youngest generation is made up of Erickson and her older sister, Hally, who lives in Brooklyn and works in New York’s art industry. That means someday Erickson will take over her family’s shrimping business. In an industry largely run by men, she’s a rarity. “But I run circles around the dudes, so that’s no problem for me,” she says, with a laugh.

The rush on Gulf pinks—called pink gold in shrimping lore—began in 1949, when shrimp were discovered off Fort Myers Beach. Erickson’s great grandfather, “Big Grandpa Carl,” was the first in the line of his family shrimping business. He’d been a fisherman in Montauk, N.Y., and he brought the family boat, the Malolo, down to the shrimp docks. He joined the ranks of other shrimpers who plied Gulf waters throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In its heyday, several shrimp packing houses served the shrimping fleet. 

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Photography by Brian Tietz