Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
Fernandina and Northeast Florida
Amelia Island has been an escape for hundreds of years for many different groups of people during its long and eventful history. It is a barrier island off the northeastern-most tip of Florida separated from the mainland by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Amelia River (part of the Intracoastal Waterway) to the west, the St. Marys River estuary to the north, and by Nassau Sound to the south. Historically, this isolation made it the destination of Timucuan Indians, pirates, smugglers, explorers, and fishermen. Presently, it is an upscale resort and golfing area and a retreat for nature lovers. Fernandina, once an active port because of its natural harbor, is the only town on the island and takes up 7 square miles in the North Central region.
Archaeological studies indicate the prehistoric people of what is now Florida established permanent villages along the coasts of Florida. Northeast Florida was inhabited for more than 600 years by the Timucuans who had a number of skills, including fishing. This style of coastal living was still prevalent in 1565 when Pedro Menendez brought people from Europe to colonize St. Augustine.
In the 1700s some immigrants to the St Augustine area were net fishermen who came from Spain's Isle of Minorca. These people settled the coasts from New Smyrna to St Augustine and were very skilled at fishing for mullet, sheepshead, crabs, trout, turtles, drum, oysters and "pogies" (menhaden). Mullet was such a staple for life and commerce that the famous cry "mullet on the beach" would stop daily business and other activities as everyone rushed to the beach to harvest passing schools of mullet.
The picturesque and historic harbor of Fernandina Beach, once a haven for pirates, became one of the most productive shrimping and fishing centers in the southeast.
Shrimping evolved into the modern commercial industry in Fernandina in the early 1900s. The evolution was threefold: a change in location from inshore to offshore; a change in method from cast nets, haul seines and bar nets to the modern otter trawl; and a change in power from rowboats and sailboats to fleets of motor-powered vessels. Fernandina is where shrimpers put it all together and where the great international fleets of today had their humble beginnings.
Around 1900 commercial shrimping began. In 1902 Sallecito Salvador, a Sicilian immigrant living in Fernandina Beach, developed a shrimping technique using a small horsepower engine on his boat. Utilizing this engine provided enough power to pull the shrimp seine across the ocean floor in deeper waters. In 1906 he started his own company, S. Salvador & Sons. Anecdotal information obtained from descendants of Sallecito Salvador have stated that his true name was Salvador Sallecito but upon his arrival his name was transposed and not wanting to do anything that might prevent his entry into America, he accepted the changed name.
At this time Jacksonville was not supporting much commercial fishing. However it was known as the "Gateway to Florida," because distributors and packers were handling so many products from Fernandina, Mayport and St Augustine.
Sallecito was joined by other Sicilians, his two brothers-in-law, Salvatore Versaggi and Antonio Poli, plus Joseph Gianino. Times were poor with shrimp selling locally for a nickel a pound, so Versaggi went to New York to work. There he made valuable contacts at the Fulton Fish Market for the future distribution of his shrimp before returning to Fernandina in 1912 to found his own company. Versaggi's start was hardly promising. When he first shipped shrimp back to New York, the selling price would barely cover express charges. At best, he would be paid off with a few postage stamps.
The real boom in the evolution of Fernandina's shrimping industry came in 1913, when a newcomer from Massachusetts, Captain Billy Corkum, adapted the otter trawl to catch shrimp. This is essentially the same bag-like net with iron weighted doors which you see on shrimping boats today. The otter trawl enabled the fishermen to fish in deep water and drag where the concentration of shrimp is the heaviest.
The first power driven boat to drag the trawl net successfully in deep water was manned by local pilot, Capt. William Jones Davis. Shrimp were so plentiful then that the first crude trawls worked with great success. In 1922 David Cook and Emmett Freeman refined the local trawl by adding corners and wings for better operation.
In 1922 Mr. Salvador moved his firm to St. Augustine. Here production climbed rapidly until 1929 when the depression hit the industry. By 1934 the catch was restored to its former high level and continued to increase until 1940. Around 1949 another decline in production was one reason for the exploration of new grounds which resulted in the development of Key West as the chief shrimp port of Florida. John Salvador (the son) discovered the Key West grounds in 1950. While examining a daylight trawl at about dusk, he found many more shrimp than normal in his catch, prompting him to put the nets back overboard. This second trawl was filled with shrimp and "pink gold" had been discovered.
In 1953 the nine major fishing areas of Florida were: Pensacola, Apalachicola and vicinity, Cedar Key, Tampa & tributaries, Key West, Biscayne Bay, Lake Worth, Indian River and the northeast coast.
1768 to 1788 -- Minorcan settle coastal areas
1914 to1929 St Augustine, boat dock, ship yards and seafood packing plants are supporting a fleet of over 100 fishing boats in the city's growing west side.
1940s - Main shrimping activity from Fernandina moved to St. Augustine.
1800 - Fernandina known to have good shipping facilities.
1808 - Fernandina declared a free port.
1857 - Fernandina is a thriving town, attracting free-booters, pirates and smugglers.
1877 - Fernandina becomes a resort destination.
1880 - 1900 - Fernandina is a very active as a main Florida port. Lumber, cotton, naval stores, phosphate.
1899 - Fishing industry begins to develop fast from products made with menhaden catches. Fertilizers, oil and cattle feed.
1902 - Sallecito Salvador developed a shrimping technique using a small horsepower engine on his boat.
1922 - Salvador moved his business to St. Augustine.
1900 -1944 - Continued activity as a center of the fishing industry, due to accessibility.
1914 -1935 - Development period for fishing industry, shrimp packing and canning, fish fertilizer plants.
1940 - The main arena for shrimping moved from Fernandina.
1950 - John Salvador discovered shrimp (pink gold) in the Dry Tortuga's.
1913 news paper article "Evening Gazette" Nassau County (paraphrased) The fishing industry promises to add to the wealth of Fernandina. In the first three months of 1913 one million pounds of bluefish worth over $100,000 was shipped from the city. It is safe to say that by the next winter, the industry will have grown to 50 smacks and 150 launches, shipping from10 to 20 cars a day of fish and employing 1,000 men.
In 1940 the main arena for shrimping moved from Fernandina to St Augustine, Louisiana, Texas and Mexico.
In 1950 John Salvador discovered shrimp (pink gold) in the Dry Tortugas, furthering the decline of the shrimp production on the northeast coast.
Sallecito Salvador (see above)
In 1888 George W. Corbett purchased a small area for a fish market in downtown St. Augustine near the bridge of lions. Catching his own fish by night and selling them by day he built his business and started acquiring employees and boats built by local builder, Manny Sanchez. On a trip to Fernandina, George witnessed shrimp trawl nets in action. He realized the advantage of these nets over his casting nets and quickly built his own version of a trawl net. Soon he had a fleet of shrimp boats, "Miss America," "Betty C" and the "Belle H" George was also recognized in 1913 by T.R. Hodges, the Shellfish Commissioner, for growing his own oysters on grants in the Matanzas River, during a time when other oystermen were harvesting without restriction and scraping the beds clean.
Harry F. Sahlman pioneered exploratory fishing for Royal Red shrimp in 200-fathom waters, was among the first in opening up Campeche fishing in the 1940s, and provided the major political expertise in opening up South American shrimping grounds.
The founding of the modern shrimping industry was an international effort. More Sicilians followed the pioneers - Bassetta, Litrico, Fazio, Serra and others. There was Portugese (notably the Carinas brothers and Matt Roland), Scandinavians (Johnson, Janson, Hansen, Olsen and Sundeman), Greeks (the Deonas and Tiliakos boat-builders), Louis Hirth from Germany, John Ferguson from Scotland and Dave Tapper from Nova Scotia.
Many native families were industry pioneers, Hardee, Cook, Lucas, Brazzell, Little, Freeman, Wilder, Evatt, Bennett, Burbank, Garenflo, Smith, Merrow, Davenport, Brooks, Fisher, Kelly, Clark, Goffin, Morse and others. Outstanding among the native pioneers were the Hardee brothers, who from 1900 operated a ship's chandlery which evolved into Standard Marine Supply Corp. Today, through affiliated companies, Standard Marine provides shrimping gear all over the world.
The modern shrimping industry began in Fernandina Beach, but most maintain that today's shrimp boats add more to the town's scenic waterfront than to its overall economy.
Total seafood landing comparison for last 13 years.
|Seafood Landing Comparison, Last 13 Years|
Commercial and sport fishing, along with tourism, are important to the local economy. Resorts on the island and agriculture on the mainland employ more workers.
Sources, Economic Information
Mary Beth Litrico
"Amelia Now" Magazine
Nassau County Economic Development Board
Information provided by:
Museum of Florida History
R.A. Gray Building
500 South Bronough Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0250
- Museum of Florida History