Lee County’s fishing industry was “wiped out” by Hurricane Ian.

Matlacha, Fla. (WBBH) — Matlacha is among southwest Florida’s hardest hit by Hurricane Ian, with buildings destroyed, roads washed away and debris everywhere.

Somehow a small lime green building still stands among the rubble – the Island Seafood Market. Owner Casey Streeter had to rip out everything that was once inside.

“The front was washed out,” he recalled when he first saw it after the storm. “We came in through the window on that door. Our cool boxes floated up, tipped over. We had about two and a half feet of mud in the shop.”

But the biggest hit was what’s behind the store. Streeter said all of their grouper boats were damaged by Ian, and worse, they lost their docks and ice house to the hurricane.

He said other fishermen on Pine Island were also devastated by the storm.

“The things that take the longest to bring back and cost the most money to bring back — they’re gone,” he explained. “Even if I wanted to go fishing now, I have no place to land fish. I have no place to process a fishery. So (the boats) are actually idling.”

Abandoned boats lie south of Fort Myers Beach everywhere, everywhere, everywhere – and not just small ones. Hurricane Ian washed ashore a large number of massive shrimp boats.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Jesse Clapham recalled upon first seeing the damage. “It blew me away.”

Clapham is Fleet Manager at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Company. He has worked on shrimp boats for 35 years and has dealt with hurricanes before – but nothing like that.

“I’ve seen it before, but not our little Fort Myers Beach being leveled,” he said.

Of the 11 boats her company operates, only one is currently crabbing. Most of the others have to be lifted with a large crane and put back into the water. That costs money, and it could take months to lift them all, Clapham explained, not to mention the time it takes to repair them.

Shrimp cutters from other companies and fishermen are also stranded on the mainland. Every day that goes by is lost money.

“(We) sell about a million dollars worth of shrimp a month,” Clapham explained. “And it’s all gone.”

The port value of Florida’s commercial fishing industry is nearly $250 million, according to the governor’s office. It generates a $9 billion impact on the state’s economy.

Much of it is in Lee County.

“Dockside value, we’re running a probably $30 million fishery,” Streeter said, estimating the county value. “Between stone crab, shrimp, (our) grouper snapper fishery, mullet fishery, our blue crab fishery.”

Gov. DeSantis has asked the federal government to declare a fishing disaster for the region, which would allow access to federal funds to help the industry recover.

As long That will be the concern, Streeter explained. Other disaster requests — including some that were made more than two years ago — are quiet Pending.

Streeter fears aid will come too late to save something so important to Southwest Florida.

“Ian wiped out this fishery,” he said. “The businesses and people that depend on these fisheries, I don’t think, realize how close we are to losing them. And how far away is help.”

Streeter shared some positive news. He said crews will lift the first shrimp boat back into the water tomorrow at Fort Myers Beach.

NBC2 has reached out to the Florida Division of Emergency Management to confirm whether the state will help fund the effort, but is awaiting a response.

About Mike Crayton

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