The last text from Islamorada, Fla., before Hurricane Irma plowed into the Keys was about fishing.
“Look forward to a visit after things get back to normal. Bonefish are making a comeback,” wrote Richard Stanczyk, proprietor of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina for the past 40 years.
Fishing is always a central topic in Islamorada, with its well-earned reputation as the sportfishing capital of the world. But the industry at the center of the local economy has been at a standstill since Irma roared through the Keys in the early hours of Sept. 10.
Now concern is widespread about when and if normal will return for the fishing community, and whether those whose livelihoods depend on it can endure in the meantime.
“We have no income coming in right now. Hopefully, the mortgage companies are going to work with us so we don’t lose our homes,” said Bill Bassett, 56, a backcountry guide who has fished out of Bud N’ Mary’s since he was 10.
Bassett is among about 45 fishing guides and offshore captains and crews who run charters out of Bud N’ Mary’s, a cornerstone of the industry in the middle Keys at the southern tip of Islamorada since 1944.
A hall-of-fame roster of fishing talent has passed through its docks, including numerous celebrity fishing enthusiasts, such as baseball legend Ted Williams and former President George H.W. Bush.
There have been many brushes with hurricanes over the years, but Bud N’ Mary’s has never met with the likes of Irma.
Stanczyk rode out the storm in his condo near the marina, which was far enough from the eyewall that passed through the lower Keys to avoid the worst of the wind. He said he never feared for his life as he had two years ago at an island home in the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin, when he spent 22 hours huddled under a mattress in a bathroom.
What Stanczyk didn’t see during Irma’s overnight rampage was the 8-foot wall of water that rolled over the island and decimated his marina. He barely recognized it the next morning, buried under a thick blanket of debris.
The long, outer dock was completely washed away and other mooring areas severely damaged.
Nonetheless, most of the buildings held up well, and Stanczyk said he feels fortunate, noting others who lost everything. He spoke to a fishing guide who had his possessions in a home on Lower Matecumbe Key and returned from Alaska to find it all gone.
“He’s just out on the road,” Stanczyk said. “Those types of situations are tragic. Where I can reach into my pocket or a bank and find the funds to put this thing back on its feet, there are many, many people here who are not going to be able to do that.”
That’s why the rush is on to get the marina operational again, and the fishermen are scrambling over Bud N’ Mary’s like a swarm of army ants to help expedite the process.
“Lots of people are working together trying to get things back up and running,” said backcountry guide Max Gaspeny. “We all want to get back fishing again.”
The rebuilding effort really is a race against time. Financial survival of families and the community are at stake.
Greg Eklund, captain of the offshore fishing boat “Cloud Nine” and president of the Islamorada charter boat association, pointed out the interdependent relationship between the fishermen, hotels, restaurants and other segments of the service industry.
Several of the major hotels on the ocean side of the island sustained significant damage and could be closed for months. People won’t come to the Keys to go fishing if they can’t find a place to stay.
Eklund also said that the fishing fleets at the Postcard Inn (formerly Holiday Isle) and Whale Harbor will likely be out of commission longer than Bud N’ Mary’s.
“I’m not just concerned for myself, I’m concerned for the fleet,” Eklund said. “All the guys who fish out of the Postcard Inn have been told that they do not have a place to put their boats for six to 12 months.”
Eklund said his association has some funds to provide some help to financially strapped fishermen and their families, and that there have been discussions with the nonprofit International Game Fish Association (based in Dania Beach) about helping as well.
But the ultimate fix is to get the boats back on the water, he said, because, “Everybody makes their money because of the visiting anglers and divers.”
Bud N’ Mary’s got a break in the cleanup effort thanks to a client of Stanczyk’s son Nick, a captain who specializes in swordfish charters. Brad Benners, who runs Benners Contracting in Tallahassee, sent several front-end loaders to the Keys to clear debris from the property. Benners refused to take payment for the work, Richard Stanczyk said.
Stanczyk is concerned about getting the materials and workers to rebuild the docks, but most importantly, about cooperation in expediting the permitting process.
“We need to use what I call a subjective approach to allowing people to put back things in a healthy, safe manner, but at the same time not wrapping everybody up in some unbelievable red tape. We just can’t take that now,” Stanczyk said.
“Six months will break us.”
The best-case scenario, he said, would be to resume operation on a limited basis within two months, just as the season is picking up.
Meanwhile, some boats have ventured offshore and report good fishing, as is usually the case following a major storm, Eklund said.
Bassett said the hurricane may have flushed out some of the algae and pollution in upper Florida Bay from Everglades runoff that has bottled up fishing in the backcountry.
“This is actually good for the ocean and bad for the humans,” Eklund said. “The old-timers always said that these storms were exactly what the ocean needed to clean itself up and regenerate some things that were in trouble.
“So, people should know that we’re not totally closed down and that we’re looking to go fishing. The ocean is open.”
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