Commercial fishers and seafood-house owners differ on waterfront land buy

Plans to put a Stock Island fish house best known as Gulf Seafood into public ownership took a big step forward with a Wednesday vote of the Monroe County Commission.
Plans to put a Stock Island fish house best known as Gulf Seafood into public ownership took a big step forward with a Wednesday vote of the Monroe County Commission.

Lower Keys commercial fishermen applauded a plan to put a Stock Island seafood house into public ownership last Wednesday, but operators of two nearby fish houses cried foul.

The Monroe County Commission voted unanimously to approve a draft management plan intended to guide operations of the former Gulf Seafood property on Peninsular Avenue, a key step toward buying the $7 million “working waterfront” site in partnership with Florida Communities Trust. The property is reported to be in foreclosure so who exactly would get the money isn’t clear.

“There are only two [Lower Keys] fish houses left and one doesn’t own their own property. The fishermen need this,” George Niles, a member of a longtime commercial-fishing family, said at the Key West meeting.

Peter Bacle, owner of the Stock Island Lobster Co., protested that operating Gulf Seafood as a public entity would directly compete with his decades-old business.

“What happens to me when I have to compete with a business subsidized by my own tax dollars?” Bacle said. “A handful of fishermen are going to hit the lottery without investing anything.”

Fishbusterz fish house owner Colleen Quirk and Bacle contended the county’s draft proposal upends business practices that keep private commercial-fishing properties running. Seafood houses provide boat dockage and emergency support to fishermen in return for an exclusive commitment to sell harvested fish only to the host business, they said.

Tentative plans for Gulf Seafood propose direct space leasing to commercial fishers, with an option of selling to an on-site business.

“It’s all rosy projections, nothing but a win-win,” Bacle scoffed. “This plan has zero chance of being successful.”

Commissioner Danny Kolhage pointed to an aerial photo of Stock Island outlining four former working-waterfront properties that have been developed, or will be, into “upscale marinas” that cater to yachts, not lobster-trap boats.

“This is the most dramatic visual we have,” Kolhage said. “It’s showing exactly what is happening to the commercial-fishing properties out there right now.”

Commercial fisher Mimi Stafford said a still-forming work plan could result in some type of nonprofit cooperative at Gulf Seafood. “I think this is the model of the future and this is what the fishermen want,” Stafford said. “It preserves and protects the fishermen.... Please give us a chance.”

Commissioners said details of management have yet to finalized, and can be adapted. Fishermen and commissioners stressed that space at the eight-acre property should be limited to boats and fishing families with an established history in the Florida Keys.

As outlined, Monroe County would commit $5 million from county tourism sales taxes toward the purchase, with the Florida Communities Trust issuing a $2 million grant and paying closing costs. The management plan was sent to the FCT for review.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206