Riding round South Roosevelt Boulevard on my lunch break I saw a fishing boat at anchor, all lit up on the flat waters half a mile south of Key West. It's where boats go to get out of strong north winds when cold fronts arrive and a front is upon us this morning. Seeing that boat put me in mind of Safe Harbor, a boat basin off Front Street on the south side of Stock Island. I have an acquaintance who used to work as a commercial fisherman, and when the National Marine sanctuary was proposed for the waters of the Florida Keys he fought the Feds strenuously. And then he had an epiphany and he joined the move to protect the waters of the Florida Keys. Today he works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and he educates boaters of all stripes about the rules and regulations in place to keep the reefs alive. But its not just environmental pressures that are killing off commercial fishermen; simple economics are doing them in. Its cheaper to pay Third World wages and fly the fish to our tables than it is to pay Americans to chase fish. And so it goes, the shrinking of the Key West commercial fleet.Thirty years ago it must have seemed inconceivable to all but the most far seeing observer that the shrimpers crowding Key West Bight would be gone, replaced by pleasure boats. Yet today no one would argue that the marinas lining the boardwalk look out of place. They smell a good deal better than the commercial docks, a level of authenticity the city fathers would have a hard time selling to visitors, if the commercial fleet were still docked in the middle of the gentrification that is Key West Bight.
On Stock Island meanwhile, Front Street leading into Safe Harbor, home of Hogfish Restaurant, is a mixture of mobile homes and light industrial uses, not exactly laid out to attract the casual visitor. Though the street does benefit from an eccentric camera angle and the cover of darkness:Safe Harbor is still thriving as the hub of commercial fishing at least for the time being. Fishbusterz is the anchor business here, an ice house that offers dockage and a place for shrimpers to sell their catch. And refrigerated trucks stand by to haul away the fish; you won't often see an 18-wheeler with Key West as it's home port:At night this place makes my heart flip, what with the flat shiny waters, the bright lights reflected and the sound of humming generators. I love waterfronts even if I really don't belong there. Boarding a ship, any ship including ferries and cruise ships feeds the romantic in me in a way that getting on an airliner never has. Taking my middle-of-the-night lunch break by prowling the deserted docks of Safe Harbor is pure pleasure. I am not cut out to be a commercial fisherman, I don't have the stamina or the strength or the nuts to mix it up with people of their ilk, and they wouldn't know what to do with me acting like a tourist flapping my fingers at their hardscrabble way of life. On the recreational side of Safe Harbor I have no desire to return to boat living. But I sure do like looking at the craft lined up, listening to the ropes creak, watching the boat cats delicately prowling the dew covered decks. Across the harbor I remember the basins lined with live aboard boats, run down wrecks many of them, but homes nonetheless. They are all gone to make way for development of modern marinas that average pleasure boaters will never be able to afford. The commercial side of Safe Harbor is safe for now, but there's too much money to be made here to feel complacent that things on this side of the basin will stay this way for long. The National Marine Sanctuary spelled the beginning of the end for commercial fishing, for good or ill, as large areas of reef were placed out of bounds to sustain tourism to the detriment of commercial boats. The transformation of Stock Island will eventually push out the inconvenient commercial boats and I don't doubt Fishbusterz will get an offer he can't refuse. And then I will be able to say I remember the good old days, and that I appreciated the tenuous thread that held all this together, the shadows of boats barely visible in the encroaching darkness... And its that air of imminent destruction that perhaps gives Safe Harbor a romantic overlay, because whether I remember it or not in 20 years, it will still all be gone most likely and I will just be a bore for reminding people of what used to be.And I was there at 3am with my inseparable companion, my 2007 Triumph Bonneville.