Title: Interview with Ben Williams (October 19, 1996)
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00006880/00001
 Material Information
Title: Interview with Ben Williams (October 19, 1996)
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Publication Date: October 19, 1996
Subject: Fisherfolk
University of North Florida
Funding: This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00006880
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
Holding Location: This interview is part of the 'UNF Fisherfolk' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: UNFFC 31

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Linda: Okay, this is Linda Udi talking with Ben Williams, owner of Fisherman's Dock
Seafood in Mandarin. Today is October 19.
Ben: Okay, and it's actually Williams Wholesale Seafood incorporated. And we actually have
two stores, one in Orange Park and the one here in Mandarin.
Linda: Okay, I'm gonna ask some questions and you can feelfree to go off on a tangent and
talk about things that I may not ask about I'd like to know first of all how you got started in
the business.
Ben: By accident. It started out as, we always fished with my father. (phone rings) Anyway,
what was your first question?
Linda: So I was asking you how you got started in the business...
Ben: My father always, we always recreational fished. Always, always. I loved it absolutely
loved it. And so while I was going to college, one of my two part time jobs they opened a fish
market down here in mandarin. I was probably like 18 or 19 years old and I said wow, this ought
to be interesting, I'll go get a job in the fish market. So I got ajob in the fish market, and I liked
that. And I caught and sold a few fish at the same time, and the opportunity came to buy in part
owners of that fish market while I was still going to school. And I did that and that worked out
pretty, pretty ugly actually, because being young and ignorant, they actually just took my
money. But anyway, learned a lot, and looked at the business, even though like I said it was
only, by the time they'd all sort of fell out, I might have been 22 years old. I kind of looked at it
and I said, you know, you can make money with this if these people would do this right. They'll
come in here and run this thing properly they could make a real good living. So, then the
opportunity, that kind of all fell apart down there, and we worked partners with one of the other
guys that I was working with in a fish market over on Edgewood and Commonwealth, and again,
that was another learning experience about not being in business with other people and learning
about the fish business, and all of that. And when that finally came to an end after six months I
commercial fished. Gill netting and crabbing in the St. John's River for about eight months to a
year or so. And also working part time at a fish market a guy had on Southside Blvd., in the
meantime getting married and finishing college with a, I got, in fact, from the University of
North Florida, I have a Criminal Justice is what my... it's doing me a lot of good right here right
now. But anyway, meantime I got married and the man on Southside Blvd., he says, and he's got
the same problem that everybody else I've run into is that they're not running the business the
way I think the business should be run, and they're not making enough money for the effort, and
he wants out. And so, borrowing $4000 from my father-in-law, my wife and I basically were, by
giving him whatever he had invested in the business, which was about that much...in fact, I kept
it, it's right there on the wall, the sales agreement. If you can believe that. I mean, that's what
the sales agreement for the business was didn't even have a lease in the building. And so we
started that's how we got a fish business, I think it was February 11, I don't know how many
years, it might be 10 years ago now, and the first year we, the first month we were there, we
actually had a little money left over at the end of the month, which obviously we should have,
and from there...hang on (phone call)...anyway, so we had the retail business, which was all it
was, and it was a terrible hole in the wall place you know, you keep it clean and give the people
S good stuff. And anyway, we ended up here ten years later. Now we've got two and we run
trucks over four counties every day and have 25 employees which I never thought I would have.
It's pretty good.
Linda: What kind of- did you sell the same fish ten years ago when you started that you do



Ben: Ten years ago and fifteen years ago when I really first started, or even longer than that
now, almost everything we sold was domestic product. And that's not to say that there wasn't a
lot of import products sold in Florida and, in northeast Florida, it's just that almost everything we
sold in our markets and almost everything we sold to our restaurant accounts was domestic
production products. And today, that's not the case. That's a substantial change. First off, we
can't get enough domestic products, not the products they want. That's not to say a lot of it isn't
produced, because a lot of what's produced nobody wants. A lot of what's produced bluefish
and mackerel and jack crevalle, and a lot of things we can't sell so they get shipped to other
places and people don't think about it, but you know, the United States is the largest, if I
remember properly, is the largest fish exporting nation in the world. But we're also the largest
importer, which means we're very particular about what we want. You go to Miami and we deal
with one company called South Pacific Seafood, and they bring in Venezuelan Red Snapper.
That is sort of, that's their big item. The man that owns the company, his family has been in it a
long time down there, and the rest of the time they are buying and selling, they are sending
things to South America. Somehow we don't think about South America as being as viable a
market as it is, shipping stuff hard as they can go bluefish, which of course, that going to hurt
the export trade with the net ban we've got, because it's the bluefish were caught with nets, the
Jack Crevalles were caught with nets, the Spanish Mackerel, the mullet I had a guy I used to
crab with, I used to crab for actually in here a little while ago, he's catching mullet right now.
This is the first year without the nets for the catching of the mullet and he's catching some with a
throw net. Well, that may be fine for providing a little bit of fish for the domestic market, and
even then not enough, but what about the exportation of these things and the dollars that it
actually brings in to the American economy? I mean, it's like mining or farming, I mean, it's
true wealth.
Linda: That's interesting, because when I read the newspaper they didn't talk about the
export aspect of the...
Ben: It's very difficult. I mean, it's not as simple as you can print in the newspaper. I mean, it's
just not. It takes too many pages, too many column inches. They can't put all the particulars in
there and explain all the particulars. And it's there if you call the folks at the Department of
Natural Resources I guess it's DEP now, they've got all these statistics. You know, here's where
it goes, and here's how much it's worth.
Linda: So, the net ban isn't really affecting YOUR business, as I understand?
Ben: Yet. And yes it has. The cost of certain things and the availability of certain things...the
cost is up, the availability of some things is down. And here in northeast Florida, this is a big
mistake people take. They look at Florida as Florida. And unfortunately when you talk about a
peninsula as long as Florida is that goes from temperate to essentially tropical, from about
Sebastian south where we have an essentially a tropical marine environment. From Sebastian
inlet north, we have essentially a temperate marine environment that is more like Albermill
Sound and the like in the Carolinas. I mean, that's really us. And the rest of Florida is
something different. And then the Gulf Coast from Tampa, cedar Key, and that area, somewhere
in there, north is different than from that area basically south. And it's very difficult to make
blanket statements, and that's probably the biggest problem with the net ban or any blanket one-


size-fits-all law of any sort. And especially in our industry is that you've applied it to things that
are not the same. Here in northeast Florida, you don't have any, we never had the big purse
seines that they talk about for Spanish Mackerel. We didn't, it's just a completely different
thing. I mean, the St. John's River and its estuaries and the St. Mary's, and the Nassau and all
are completely different than what occur south of Sebastian Inlet. It's very difficult...I forgot
what the question was.
Linda: No, that WAS the question...well, I was asking what you sold then compared to now...
Ben: But, now, here's the point that I was trying to get at. Here in north Florida, our beach fish
season, which is the, this is what's hard to a commercial fisherman does not necessarily decide
"I'm going to fish for shrimp" and he only fishes for shrimp. Yes, he can do that, but there are, if
he tends to want to keep his boat in one place and stay where his home is and see his wife and
kids, you know family values on a regular basis, he can't. He can't follow shrimp. Yeah, he can
if he wants to make a living, but following the shrimp, as different areas are in production and
different species are in production, because we have three basic species that we produce in the
state of Florida excluding rock shrimp, which is the third, and royal reds, which is the fourth,
both of those are relatively small. So the boat can, yeah, he can produce shrimp year round, but
he's gonna have to go and be gone, and then come back. You can't really raise a family and
have dad watching the kids, which God knows, we firmly realize is what needs to happen. So
* they have to go according to the seasons, species to species. And we owned a shrimp boat for a
long time, thank God I never had to run it. The boy that was running it for quite some time that I
owned it with come about this time, he would park the shrimp boat, tie it up, and go get his
mullet nets out, because he would make more money catching mullet. And then when the mullet
were finished running, he'd break out his beach seines, because come January, February, March,
there's not hardly any shrimp to be caught up here. Break out his beach seines, but before he
would break out his beach seines, he would also break out his shad nets, because the St. John's
River is the first river, the southernmost river in the United States, that produces a commercial
run of shad, shad roe, shad meat, it's a big thing up north and the coast of Virginia and Carolinas,
we for years sold boneless shad meat to the Riverclaw, to Timucuana country, I mean, it's a
high-end, white tablecloth type item. The average person wouldn't buy them, they don't know
what to do with them. But here we are, late December, early January, we're the first river to go
into production. At a time of year that the mullet season just ended, the guys that want to stay
home obviously have another item that they can produce, they produce shad. Okay, you've taken
the mullet away from them, you've taken the shad away from them by taking the nets away, the
next thing that happens is the beach fish season, which is Late January, February, March, as the
water finally reaches its lowest point of temperature and bottoms out, and it just gradually they
know spring is coming, the guys go to beach fishing, well we lost that also. (phone rings) Okay,
so with the nets, the mullet are gone, so if you're shrimping and you want to stay home, and you
were mullet fishing and beach fishing, you've lost those two options, the shad fishing you've
lost, can't come within, inside the one mile limit, which we, up here that's never been an issue,
S because we had voluntary closures every, April first every year. April and May, the roe shrimp
season, for as long as I can remember, it's been a voluntary thing with the shrimpers that they {}
it was closed within a mile of the beach to allow the roe shrimp to spawn. Even the rivers closed
to, of course birds don't know this, but you can't harvest a shrimp in any way, manner, shape, or



form, and you probably should check some of these things to make sure I'm 100 percent right on
them, they can't harvest them. Even recreationally during those times, because it's supposed to
be the spawning shrimp season for the Atlantic White Shrimp. You ever notice, what is it, the
Fernandina Shrimp Festival, is in, what, April every year? Isn't that right?
Linda: I'm not sure.
Ben: But, and originally that was coincided with the run of roe shrimp, when they just reappear
on the beach in huge numbers, which that's why that was then. Well, of course for the last 20
years, hasn't coincided with anything, because they can't be inside close to the beach or
shrimping, so it's just sort of, that's then, that is scheduled that time of year sort of traditionally.
Anyway, because there's no shrimp nets working in January and February and March, essentially
there aren't any, there's no whiting. Whiting being one of the, especially in the poor areas, the
biggest selling little fish for the poor trades, and actually for everybody. They're absolutely
delicious little fish. And, we don't sell that many of them. A lot of markets do. There are places
that will sell two or three hundred pounds a day. Well, we couldn't ever get them off of the
shrimp boats, but fortunately the beach fishing took up the slack because they catch beach
whiting. No beach whiting, it's over. I mean, they're just not going to have them. So yeah, the
net ban's had an effect, and it's put people out of business, and it's raised the costs, and we're
gonna really see, we're going to see the lack of availability show up in the spring, and we're
going to see it in the prices that we pay, and we're going to have to charge a little bit more.
(phone rings) Can you tell that this industry, and you wouldn't think it as heavily, there's a lot of
women that are in this industry?
Linda: I would never thought, and that was going to be one of my questions later. I noticed
everybody you've talked to has been a woman.
Ben: It's, yeah, it's strange.
Linda: How has the business changed over the years?
Ben: Changed, well, just from the retail aspect, I guess that's what I know the most about. 15
years ago, none of the grocery stores sold seafood. It was one of those things where you had
little independent fish markets selling seafood and a lot of them, the people that owned them
produced a portion of what they sold. And I would have to break, we would have to go get a
couple of phone books, one from 15 years ago and one from today, and count. I guarantee you
the population of northeast Florida has doubled, and I guarantee you the number of actual
functioning independent fish markets is the same, if not smaller, if not quite a bit smaller,
because it's that much more difficult, there's not the independent production that there was,
there's not, it's just a lot more difficult to do. You have to sell enough stuff nowadays to be able
to buy imported product and to have a little, I won't say buying power, but buying "clout",
because when things get tight, you have to be selling enough stuff when things aren't tight to
have built up a little producer loyalty to where they give you the product when there's no
product, which makes it very difficult for little people. Those of us that sell enough stuff, we
were lucky, and I wish that I could say that I saw it coming, you know, some crystal ball, some
sort of genius about the future, but we started selling restaurants which is what, probably 90% of
the actual physical volume of the product that we sell. That's probably where 90% of it goes.
We originally started doing that is because it helped with the turnover. Didn't really make us any
money, because the margins were low and it was a pain to deliver them and you had to wait to


get paid, but it kept things turning, especially the Grouper, the Snapper, the Salmon, things like
that. And now it's not so much the turning even though that's important because it maintains the
quality of the market, it is, it is the leverage it gives us, because we're literally buying thousands
of pounds a day. We've got companies like Stoltzy Farm, which is originally a shipping
conglomerate out in Norway, which is now one of the largest Salmon producers in the world.
They have farms out in Norway, in Chile, in Maine, in British Columbia, in Nova Scotia, I mean
they've got farms everywhere and they're huge. Other than Safe Harbor Seafood who delivers
their fish to the Winn Dixies, we get their fish, and their fish, their quality production is tops in
the industry. People sort of go to them wanting to sell their fish, and we sell a couple thousand
pounds of salmon a week, and to actually extrapolate that over a year, and actually more than
that, it adds up to something. And because we sell enough stuff, we get better fish here, in our
retail markets we have the very best Atlantic salmon they can get. Plus, we got such, so that's
originally where the, and it's just worked out. And now we've got buying power, and now we
buy stuff buying clout. There's a difference...buying power means you buy enough where you
can beat them down on the price. That's the way I, as a business person, always look at it. But
clout means that you pay good, you're honest, you don't beat them up for a pound on a thousand,
if it's grossly over, you're as likely to call them as if it's grossly under. That's different. That is,
that's different than buying power. Winn Dixie has buying power. I don't know that they've got
clout. I don't know that everybody loves them because they may well be, but...and you sell
volume too. So we're lucky in that. So as long as it's available, we can pretty much buy. And
the little guys don't. And it's gonna get worse for them. It's gonna get a lot harder, because
they're losing the independent fishermen. We gradually lose ours. So...
Linda: In what other aspects has the business changed? Technology, tools?
Ben: Technology and tools, at least in our level, hasn't changed a lot. On the other hand, and
this, and this is, in Florida doesn't happen too much because we are not so much of individual
species production. You go up north, though, or you go to one of these salmon farms, and they
have computer controlled cleaning machines and portioning machines, and the technology is, it's
amazing. I mean, it really is amazing. Essentially I'm exaggerating, you feed the fish in one
end, and it comes out the other portioned. I know it's not quite that good. But that presupposes
almost uniformity in size, species, because the anatomy of all these fishes is very different. And
the anatomy of the salmon is substantially different than that, you can just tell by looking at
them, of a flounder, you saw the flounder, and the snapper I held, I mean, it's obvious they're
different. IN the meat textures and what you can and can't do with them, and in Florida because
of the variety of species we've produced and the size variation and, just because of the way
we've always done it, the technology of processing has not ever, we haven't ever used it for
cleaning and processing, and that's what I mean when I say processing. On the other hand, ten
years ago, when we froze shrimp here in Florida, almost all shrimp, very little of it, let's say, was
froze IQF Individually Quick Frozen. And the stuff that was individually quick frozen was
froze in brine tanks, which is super saturated solution of salt and, salt and water, and you can
S bring it down way below zero and they'd put the shrimp in a mesh bag and they'd dip it in there
"and it would freeze in relatively quick, a few seconds to a minute or two, depending. Now the
technology has gotten to the point where they use carbon dioxide blasts to freeze the shrimp.
And if you go look at Safe Harbor's plant, it's amazing. I mean, in ten years to see where we



were and what we were doing, to go see what, and as far as in northeast Florida and southeast
Georgia Safe Harbor's a state of art it may not be state of art in the country, but his stuff is all
new, and it's, it's amazing.
Linda: So they have a...
Ben: ...in Mayport.
Linda: Oh.
Ben: Yeah. In fact, I gave Gerald Pack's name. And he's a big, he's very nice people, and they
are third generation at this.
Linda: Oh, okay. I saw his name on the list.
Ben: They should, and if they can get him in a good mood, he is a wealth of information. I
mean, in fact his, they've got pictures of his daddy rowing back when they rowed the boats for,
to pull the beach seines. And you, now you imagine rowing through the surf to haul a beach
seine. I mean, that is a tough, tough, tough thing to do. And that's, the technology, that's not
that big a change for us, but in the industry it's a big change. It's a big...
Linda: Have you saved any memorabilia from your early days in the business, other than that
contract, which I guess we should describe that contract, seriously.
Ben: Yeah, that's kind of, I wish I'd have saved that lease I had on the building. The man wrote
it out on one piece of paper, it's crazy. No, like what?
Linda: Oh, I don't know. You know how, I mean a dollar bill isn't of interest to me, butyou
know how some people save their first dollar bills and people save the first few items they ever
ordered, I guess you can't though.
Ben: You know one thing we did save, and I don't know where it is. It might be here. This is
something you think nobody would ever save, it might be here...well, I don't see it, it might be in
the house. Anyway, I told you, the only thing, the only thing we saved, and this is where you
said that { }, when you set up display cases in the morning, and I would assume most
fish markets do, anybody that has an ice case...we got in the habit, right off the bat from day one
of using a piece of two-by-four exactly the same length as the case to level the ice every
morning. Ice is hard, and the average two-by-four is just made out of yellow pine, or just soft
pine. First one we ever used on Southside Blvd. which got used for years and years, like three or
four years, and gradually the ice wore the wood down, and this thing, we've got it somewhere,
it's about that big around, and I couldn't bring myself to throw it away. Here's the first board,
look, that we ever used to smooth ice, and the first, and that's probably the only thing I ever, and
I don't know why we saved that, it's just sort of, it's probably in the garage or something. My
wife may have thrown it out not thinking about what it was even though she used it thousands of
times too to do the ice. But that's probably the only thing other than, I say that so that, people
are good to their word, I guess? Because that {contract} couldn't possibly be legal, I mean it
probably wouldn't bind, and the lease we had was exactly the same, it was one piece of paper. In
fact, that yellow thing may well be the lease of the first building, you know, I should look...and it
was actually worthless to, I don't know, let me see, you know, run a business out of a building
knowing that...yeah there it is!
Linda: Can we read it?
Ben: Yeah.
Linda: "I, Andrew Malonar?"


Ben: Malonas.
Linda: Okay, why don 'tyou read this?
Ben: "I, Andrew Malonas, am leasing the building at 3747 Southside Boulevard to Ben
Williams. The lot size is approximately one hundred by one hundred. This is a five year lease
beginning May one 1984. The amount of monthly rent is $500 per month with $30 per month
increase each year. ben can sublease this property according to our lease terms. Ben will be
responsible for all maintenance to building and lot. He will also have first option to buy property
in case of desire to sell -- Andrew Malonas" and that's it. Know what I mean? That is the lease
on this piece of, it's not even half a legal page long! And he was good to his word. I mean, he
could've come in there, run us out, and by the time we were ready, by the time the state eminent
domained us out of business over there when they widened Southside Blvd., we were doing a lot
of business, it was making money. He could've run us out and made a pretty good profit, but,
you know, laws are useless if people aren't good to their words and honest, but he was. Gosh, I
don't know...this is November 5th 1985, and I forget why it's, why the date was different on this.
"I, Larry G. Stewart, do agree to sell to Ben Williams the business called Fisherman's Dock, all
equipment used at the store that Ben Williams now leases from Larry Stewart, the remainder of
the lease the Larry Stewart has with Andy Malonas, all responsibilities, benefits, and liabilities
that goes with said business and lease, or the sum of $2750..." which is essentially the goods that
were left over in there from when he went out, and actually we had done it, we had kind of been
leasing the business from him from February, now I remember exactly how that went, and finally
we were secure enough and had enough money to pay the thing off, so, and again that's, what
good is that...
Linda: That's really something...
Ben: Well, I mean they've all, everybody was as good as their word. We paid them their money
and they sort of, and now, I don't know, I don't guess it's any, I always hate to tell people how
much business we do, that's really not anybody's business.
Linda: What do you think would happen to this business when you retire?
Ben: That depends. That depends on what we do in the next five to ten years. Obviously I'm no
magician, so the employees I've got, there are some here that are capable of running the business.
Whether or not they want to put the effort and all into it...if we do, if we go to the next step,
which the next step for us, where we stand in the industry, and with what we've done, the next
step for us is to buy a piece of commercial, not retail furnished property, but commercial
property somewhere and put up a building strictly so we can move our wholesale production out
of our little retail market here. And that's the next step. To do that and to focus more on that,
and maybe get another, a third retail market somewhere. That's sort of the next step. And the
restaurants are always going to want fresh product. And the processing of that fresh product
from whole to filets is always going to have to be done by someone. So I guess that's the next
step. If we don't do the next step, eventually we'll be like wagon wheel makers. I mean, you're
just not going to be necessary anymore. And that, I don't know what questions you've got there,
so...that brings us to the diversity issue, and not diversity like the, you hear in the news media.
You know, one of the wonderful things about the United States, you can get so many different
things to eat. So many different flavors and textures, and all of these things, and people always
say don't you get tired offish? Well, no I don't get tired of fish. you go in the grocery store



what have you got? You've got a cow, a chicken, a pig, and a turkey. What else have you got
right off the top of your head? You've got four animals. Meat is meat. I mean, cow is cow, pig
is pig, turkey is I don't care what anybody says, you can sauce the hack out of it, but that's your
four choices. I mean, yeah, maybe it's T-bone and maybe it's rump, but it's cow, okay? You
know it's cow when you slam it in your mouth. Go in a fish market, especially a fish market that
still has, especially in Florida where you have a very diverse marine environment. We have,
you've got scallops, you've got oysters, you've got a flounder, a king mackerel, a triggerfish, a
lobster, all of these things, crabs, all of these things are different textures and flavors. Obviously
different textures and flavors. I've only scratched the surface. All of the fin fish, or a great
number of them, taste very different. They have different textures. It's, you get a tuna or a
marlin, and most people, you cook it, they don't know what they're eating. They're trying to
figure out, they're sitting there trying to figure out what kind of meat they've got. And so as we
shift from a harvest, natural harvest production method in the industry to an aquiculture
production method within the industry, we're going to tend to do like agriculture has done, focus
on a smaller and smaller number of species, which of course, puts us right in the bullseye of the
lack of biodiversity, all of the things that that can cause, and we know what they are. You lose
that variety. You're gonna have the, they're gonna produce the things that are easy to produce,
and we're going to lose diversity. So whereas the potential seafood items compared to the
potential, and we're talking protein items, the potential protein items in the form of seafood is
absolutely HUGE. I mean, it's incredible as compared to the protein items available any other
way. And every time we shift and change, and whatever, we're constantly making it smaller and
making it smaller. And from a quality of life standpoint, and I'm talking about quality of life as
it improves, I mean you remember when you have something that's spectacular or different, or
something that you can only get once a year, something that, I mean, we have people, when the
stone crab season opens on October 15th, they're calling three day ahead of time. They want to
make sure they're going to be there. I mean, it's sort of an event. It adds to the quality of their
life. When it's gone, it's reduced the quality of their life, and it's a change. It's a substantial
change as far as I'm concerned. So, I forgot where I was going, but I got on a tangent.
Linda: That was interesting. You're bringing up things that I've never thought about. I
wanted to ask how you learned to run the business. You said you workedfor somebody when
you were 18.
Ben: Trial and error. We still, you may still be able to get the business school graduate, bring
him over here, I'm sure you can, let him hang out for a little while, and he's going to say you're
doing that wrong, you're doing that wrong, you're doing that wrong, this will improve
productivity, this will improve profits, and I'll probably sit there and go WOW, I never thought
of that, because I wasn't brought up in the family that was in business. We just kind of plucked
along, and sort of made a lot of mistakes and lost money here and there, I mean lost big pops of
money here and there, and then had things that worked, and sort of flung by the seat of our pants.
And if you're in business long enough, if you survive long enough, that's what I should say, if
you survive long enough and you're frugal enough and you're conservative enough, because so
many people in business, and this doesn't involve fish but, fish business but, maybe it
does...because a lot of people in our industry that are uneducated. And I hate to say that, I'm not
saying that in a derogatory thing. It's just a fact of the matter. We're probably one of the least



educated groups of people that are running businesses in this state are the people in the
commercial fishing and the seafood production industry. I mean, it's just a fact. If you survive
long enough, you figure out things, and you've got just reasonable intelligence, I mean, that's all
it takes, you figure out what works and doesn't work. And I'm sure it's, it's got to be the same
in every business. You figure out what works and what doesn't work. And if you're nice to the
customers, you make sure they get good stuff, you can survive in almost anything, because it still
is a customer business. I mean, I don't care what level you're at. there's a certain, you'll pay a
nickel more to somebody you like than you will to somebody you don't like.
Linda: You were mentioning earlier that there's a lot of women in the business. Were there a
lot of women in the business 15 years ago?
Ben: Oh, yeah.
Linda: Oh, there were?
Ben: Yeah. It's not a glamour business and I wish I I thought about bringing it and I forgot all
about it this morning. I'm a member of the stewards of the St. Johns, in fact for the last 2 years I
served on their board and we're sort of a, one of those environmental wacko groups. We're not
really wacko but we're, we're pretty adamant about our environment. I mean, for us it's an art
history, it's an economic issue. Not to mention I know my little girls aren't going to do this for a
living, and I want them to be able to go out there and see and enjoy what I saw and enjoyed. I
want it to be in good condition. I mean, that's, and everybody else's little kids too. I mean, they
deserve that. We were given this as stewards, I mean that's the only reason we've got all this
wonderful stuff, and if we trash it, that's not our right, it's our...but anyway. And I'll use soft
shell crabbing as an example. And Joe Foster, in fact, he might show up here any minute for his
paycheck because they just turned the { } tanks off in the last couple of three days. It's
been a mom and pop a lot of things. A mom and pop industry. For a long time the people that
owned the shrimp boats, the men would go out and shrimp, but they needed to be shrimping and
repairing the boats and fixing the nets and all that, and you know, a lot of times they did carry the
stuff to the docks, but in a lot of instances, they caught the shrimp and the wife or the children
sold the shrimp. And it still goes on here in Jacksonville. The Gillmore family, until Larry died
a few years ago, a couple of years ago, in the boating accident where the man got hit by the...his
wife sold the shrimp he got from their house. And it goes on today. It is a cooperative effort
between husband and wife, between family units. And in the soft shell industry, when they're
running the soft shell tanks, it's a 24 hour a day job. Well, who do you think does it? There's
not enough money in it to pay somebody that doesn't love you. Okay, I mean, who is going to
get up and tend these little baggers every single night that the tanks are running, every couple of
hours? And turn them and pull them and be wet and bit by bugs and just...who's going to do it?
Especially when you're not making a hundred thousand dollars a year. So it's always been one
of these, you know, split and work along together. And so our industry has enumerable, you can
go out there, Miss Eloise and Al, they run that business together. Eloise has been there for as
long as I can remember. They did the same thing we did. They had their children in that fish
market. Our first child, I don't know how many hours she spent in the clean fish box in a
. blanket, sleeping in that fish market while Luann and I worked the fish market. And so, there's
never been this sort of separation. Yeah, for the hard grunt work, yeah, the men went out
because the physical ability, okay? But when it came time for, there's a lot of other things that


need to be done. There's the paperwork, there's the actual selling, there's the cleaning of the
fish. In fact, the girl that is, and she's through doing it now that we don't have shad anymore,
but boning a shad is one of the most difficult things you could do with a knife. I can't do it. No,
maybe I can do it, I just can't do it like someone that really knows what they're doing. And there
probably aren't, I might be exaggerating, there probably aren't a half a dozen people that actually
can do it and do it right and know how to do it. Did you know that almost...you wouldn't know,
almost all of those people that know how to do it and do it right are women? because the men
caught the fish, and the women learned how to do it. the girl that, she just had a baby...Annette,
she's, I guess Annette's maybe 30. For the last 5 or 6 years, she has boned all the shad for us
that we sold to the river club and to { } and Timucuan and all these places because she
knew how because her mama taught her how, and out there at Safe Harbor Casper does the
boning of the shad and I'm sure she may well have taught somebody else and before that, her
sister Catherine did it, and I'm sure granny Pack knows how to do it, because it did, and it's that
separation of labor. We've never split up and, it's just, there's no reason to split people out.
Linda: So the fishing community's tight?
Ben: Yeah...
Linda: ...That's nice.
Ben: It is, yeah. I mean, until Roy Baker got in bad shape and his wife died, her and her
daughters would pull crab traps. I mean this woman commercial crabs. She'd go out there and
pull crab traps every day. Pull crab traps...and Luann worked in the fish market right with me. I
mean, she cleaning fish as good as anybody there, I mean, { } oysters, whatever the heck
needed doing. My sister-in-law is over here, runs both our retail markets right now. It's not like
it's something that can't be done, and it's always, because it was always a family type of thing,
and the margins are low and it was never something you really got rich at, especially at the way
we were doing it for so long, there was never any sort of shucking out, well no, you could stay
home and do such and such. And the kids were brought in because the kids had to be watched.
Linda: Did the kids help?
Ben: Well, mine aren't big enough, but you go out there to Safe Harbor or you go out to Al
Leek's place, and for ever and ever Denise was doing the paperwork and Mark was fishing, and
Al and Eloise were working with us and Eloise's daddy was working in the fish house. And the
fish house is on a piece of property where his daddy had a fish house. And yeah, the kids were
involved. And at Safe Harbor, there's probably, there's at least 3 generations, there may be a
4th generation tottering around out there, doing some work that I don't know about. But moms
and brothers and sisters and, yeah. There's no sexism in this thing, it was who could do what
and we need to get it done and we're all going to do it was the way it's been. (phone rings)
Linda: I don't want to keep you forever, so you'll cut me off as soon as...
Ben: Well, I don't have to go anywhere, my wife's taking the kids to Brownies and I told Kim
he's going to handle the rest of it, so whatever you want to do.
S Linda: Well, I have plenty of questions. Are there any special sayings or expressions
characteristic to this business?
Ben: Well, you've always heard people that say "I didn't just fall off the watermelon truck",
well, we refer to it as the mullet truck. And I'm trying to think, you'd have to, let me think about


that as we go along. Some of them I'm not going to repeat.
Linda: And of course if they're real old ones, I'm interested in how they originated.
Ben: I might not be a good source for that, but I'll think.
Linda: Everybody I've met is young...
Ben: Really, I'm not young, I'm almost 40.
Linda: Any interesting or funny experiences you've had?
Ben: As far as what?
Linda: You know, anything that you wouldfind amusing while working in this trade...
Ben: I find the customers amusing. Incredibly amusing, and from their, I don't mean this
derogatory, but from their logical ignorance. They come in and they look at the fish, and
invariably they'll ask 'Is this fresh today?' And it's like, well, if it wasn't good enough to sell,
we wouldn't have it out there. And implicit in the question is 'It was caught and brought here
this morning, and you're going to throw it out tonight' because there's this idea that fish lasts 24
hours, which of course is not trueNo, it won't last a month like a piece of beef, but that's, I've
always found that amusing. The amount of ignorance in that sort of questioning. And the
newspaper's been real good about it. We used to, I wish I could remember her name because she
was so nice, the DNR lady that used to do the, what was her name? The blonde haired lady that
used to do the cooking classes, she's in Atlanta now. Anyway, I always like to give credit, you
S know? She wrote, she would, she did a fish article and she would try to really tell them the truth.
And that's probably our, that's, I find that amusing every time somebody asks that. 'Are these
S fresh' or 'was that caught today.And you try to explain it to them and it's hard because a
commercial snapper boat, and I'll use this as an example. Eight or nine, twelve miles an hour top
speed for most of them, they load up bait nice and fuel and the whole nine yards, and they leave
Mayport. Well, they've got to go 50 or 60 miles. Well, there's half the day right there. They
can't catch enough fish in few hours. What they do is they stay 3, 4, 5 days. If it's really nice
they might stay 6 or 7 days. They bring the fish back to the dock, and they unload them. Yeah,
they were unloaded today, but when were they caught? Well, I could probably tell you better
than most people by looking them whether they were caught on the first day or 2 of the trip or the
last day or 2 of the trip, but as far as quality, they're all plenty good for eating raw.fAnd they're
all probably fresher then the cow you just bought wrapped in the grocery store because Lord only
knows when that thing was killed, and does anybody ever ask? I mean, go ahead. Go in the
grocery store and ask when was it killed. They'd never do that, it's crazy. (irrelevant
conversation) ...I went to this EPA hearings with some ladies from the Sierra club three years
ago, maybe it's four years ago, the state EPA hearings, where they were trying to set the levels of
dioxins that they will allow in the effluent. We're talking zero-point-something parts per
quadrillion, or per billion, it's obscene, it's like throwing 3 raisins in the St. John's River. And
they're talking, and I'm listening to epidemiologists and all kinds of scientists up there arguing,
and they change a letter by a decimal point in this huge equation to come out with the number of
cancer deaths per million increase. I'm talking, it did not engender faith in the abilities of our
S scientists, but it did scare me. It did scare me. Anything that in such small concentrations is, and
they don't know whether it's immunodepressant or carcinogenic or both. They couldn't agree on
that. They did agree it was dangerous. And that in these, and in Georgia Pacific like Joe says,
they've trashed Rice Creek, trashed it for years, and it's trash not just from the dioxins, even


* 12

though the dioxins are in the sediments and that makes things really bad. They've trashed it also
from BOD, I mean, there's no oxygen in the creek, not as much as there used...there's more now
than there used to be, because of the way they've done the filtration ponds and the oxygenation
and all, but whet they want to do is, and then you can no longer and this is one of those things
where our environmental stands have bit us in the buns. The levels, if I've got this right, the
standards they have, the new standards that they have to come to, they can't meet running it into
Rice Creek because of the Lack of Mixing zone. So it is because of our new, more stringent
environmental laws that they're going to take the effluent from Rice, from dumping it into Rice
Creek, which is already trashed and ruined, and is already, the sediments are just absolutely
ladened with dioxins, they're going to run a pipe to the middle of the river to give them a bigger
mixing zone. At the same time it's going to allow them to eliminate the oxygenation process,
which is going to increase the biological oxygen demand in the river because it's really an ugly
thing. And I've been to 2 or 3 meetings, and listened, and I'm on the mailing list for the state
every time they do anything on it, and it's really complicated. Exactly what Joe said. You don't
even, in our industry, you don't even have to, you don't even have to eliminate our production.
All you've got to do is make the public think that what we produce is not safe to eat. Look at
Appalachicola Bay. They can't sell their oysters, not because they're unsafe, but because the
perception is that they're unsafe. A naturally occurring virus, { }, whatever, which has been
' there since God created everything, and a million years ago some human could have eaten an
oyster and gotten it and died. And because of our social behavior and the fact that we have a lot
of immunosupressed people wandering around in our society who don't take responsibility for
themselves and refuse to read the warnings and heed the warnings, the rest of us are going to
suffer and those people over there can't sell a healthy product that's being produced. It's really,
it really, I get, you can tell when I get aggravated. And you should, and if you want to hear our
conspiracy, I've got a conspiracy theory too, and it has to do with people that want to develop
every square inch of coastal Florida. And the first thing they need to do is they need to get rid of
a visible quantifiable income to the state-producing group of people before they can trash that
marine environment and dredge it and full it and bulkhead it and build condos on it, because
every time they want to do that, we can stand up and we can say 'Look, wait a minute. We
provide jobs, we provide income, we provide blah blah blah' and we're going to { } them.
And, yeah, they'd like to see us gone, in a heartbeat they'd like to see us gone because while the
environmentalist may view us as the enemy a lot of times, in reality we're not their enemy and
they're not our enemy because the 2 things are compatible. There's always a surplus that can be
harvested without destroying, I mean, we've just got to figure out where that line is and harvest
to that line. Then resource will continue as long as the water's healthy, as the resource is there.
But, if you want to bulkhead it and you want to dredge it and you want to drain it and you want
to fill it, we're in the way. We are big time in the way. I get really cranked up...
Linda: You bet.. This is really interesting today! I'm glad I got to be the one to come.
(irrelevant conversation)
Ben: Where are we?
Linda: Well, a new question. What do you like best and least about your business?
Ben: Least? The thing I like the least...you're talking about the industry in general, or actually
running a business?



Linda: No no, the industry...
Ben: The industry? I think it frustrates, the thing I like the least is that, and again it goes back to
the customers, a lot of times they don't appreciate, I don't think...I think a lot of times they do,
but I think a lot of times they don't appreciate how absolutely wonderful and beautiful some of
the stuff they get. How truly fresh, as compared to what they generally get as food it is, and
that's something that, being someone that, even when I was a kid, mom cooked fish, I mean, I
just, we just eat, we like to eat the fish, and I'm sort of, it's sort of, I guess that's the thing I like
the least is that people don't really, I can't wait. When, anytime we get anything new, or there's a
boat in, or one of the guys comes in with fish, like Rick came in right before you were there I
was talking to him. He came in, had some flounder he'd gigged. In fact, one of the flounder he
gigged last night. I'm just still impressed with it, I'm always impressed with the fish and the
environment they come from and all the little...and yeah, I look at it as a food item and a way to
make a living, but I'm also sort of, I hate to say this because it sounds corny, almost in love with
the whole thing about it, the actually going and seeing this beautiful animal and I, and harvesting
them, and enjoying them, and you know. And a lot of people walk in and it's almost to me like
it's another can of Del Monte to them. And I don't like that, because it's not another can of Del
Linda: Well I think, You know, and it's not important what I think here, but I think people
don't get out into the wild and actually get involved in that can't get an appreciation...
Ben: They really can't. I mean, it's an aside issue. Well, you can tell those were my father's, he
just died a few weeks ago. We don't, I don't avoid red meat on purpose. But I bet you we don't
have one piece of red meat every month, and generally that will be when we go out to eat with
somebody, just sort of happens that way, and the same thing holds true for poultry. We don't
ever buy a chicken. I bet you we haven't bought a chicken in six months. We haven't bought a
piece of red meat for the house. Yet on the other hand, I make a point of going every year and
going and shooting two or three or four deer, and we consume the deer during the year. And
every time you eat, it's different, it's, I didn't go to the grocery store and pluck down four

^ _____________________i n

Ae-L 2, ^ lL?;[|f^

mc s. tat P ppe st nifo ji i

We cut it up. I hauled it the mile and a half out of the woods
to the dog gone truck, and no, we don't run dogs or anything.
You learn about the animals. Aa lot of people don't approve of
hunting and that's fine. That's another thing that is dying.
That's something that may take a hundred years or it may take
fifty years, but they're going to kill it in this country .
They're also going to kill a lot of the appreciation of the
environment. I'm an environmentalist because I love and
appreciate and use and enjoy the environment. The fact that I
know more about deer from having sat in the trees and watching
ones I wasn't going to shoot, or having to learn about them so
that I could take one that makes me appreciate it [the
environment] more and want to preserve it more. I get excited
when I see one [a deer] standing on the side of the road and
point it out to my children. It's the same way with the fish to
a certain extent. Having caught them, having been miserable
catching them, yet to come home miserable and consume what you
caught. Tthese people don't see the fisherman when they come
back from 5 days from the ocean. I don't quite feel the same
when they get the Tawapia that's been raised in the pond, but
having known what goes on when catch they catch the wild stuff,
yeah I think that's one of the things that depressees me the
most. That they consumers ] don't appreciate what they're getting
and they don't appreciate what they're losing. They are going to
lose it it. Everything is going to be farmed and I don't want
to depreciate farmin, [but] it's going to be aquaculture business
instead of agra business. Like I said about the salmon, one of
the other biggest salmon farming companies is British Petroleum.
Because they produce the feeds used in the salmon farms, they got
into salmon farming. The aquaculture fish are nice and
beautiful, but it's not the same .

What do you like the best? I like being able to pick out what I
like to eat every night. No, that's selfish. What I like the
best... I guess it's the same thing that I find discouraging or
annoying in the public. I absolutely love to watch them unload
a boat. When I say that, I like to look at the fish. I still
like to go out and poke around the fish; go out and look through
the shrimp boxes. And the smell of them it's like the
recreational fishing which I still I love to do. It's still a
thrill. When something different comes in, when the halibut
first run or like we got Dungeness crabs flown in this morning,
the first time this year. Pat's out there, he's throwing them in
the tank. I want to go out there and look at them and check them
out. I'm [thinking] I'm having a couple of these for dinner.
Just from a primal excitement stand point I like when fisherman
come in and dump the stuff on the floor and we go through it. lL/

Were there any specialized trades or crafts that grew out
of the fishing industry that people had to get involved in as a
secondary job in order to augment their salaries?
Well obviously the boats. For a long time they made their own
boats. They won't be making them any more, but the flat bottom
mullet jump boats a lot of people just made them. They made
them out of marine plywood. A lot of people didn't even use
marine plywood. They made their traps. The ability to make
their equipment. It's pretty hard to mass produce a crab trap.
It's a hand [built] item, So the ability to work the wire...
The production of the nets, we've got net making machines now,
but still the hanging of the net so it works properly. That's
seriously misunderstood by the public. They think you got a net,
you go out there and throw it in the water and you're just going
to denude that water of fish. I got news for you, it ain't gonna
work. I can give you a net and a boat and you can't go out there
and catch a fish. You can flail around there a week. You might
catch enough to keep from starving, but you can't fish. I can't
go out there and fish. I might not even know why my net's not
fishing, they call it fishing, the net not fishing, Well the
boat next to me is catching fish in his net. So the ability to
hang nets, to mend nets, they have to learn to weld, they have to
learn carpentry. You can't afford in a low margin industry... we
have a lot of people that can do a lot of different things. A
lot of the guides are ex commercial fisherman. Of course that's
been touted by the recreational fishing industry [that] all these
guys can be guides. That's not going to happen, that's a pipe
dream. A lot of them aren't fit to... they're not nice enough
people, they're not psychologically fit to do this. They used to
build their own boats and that was the darndest thing. It's been
about 8 or 9 years but they built a wood boat out there at
Mayport right there next to the coast guard station and that was
the darndest thing to see these guys go out there. They went
out there and built a boat. We're not talking marine engineers,
we're talking the guys that were going to use the shrimp boat
built the shrimp boat. I don't know if the Virginia is still
there. Tell them [other students] to ask about the Virginia.
The Virginia is ancien. It's 100 years old if she's a day old.
And up until a few years ago they still used her for snapper
fishing. She may be older than that. She may have been a
steamer sailing or something. Ask about the Virginia.
An employee walks in... What's up with the 2 more boxes of
crab you brought in? Shorty brought them in today. Today?
Yeah, because he has people robbing his traps. He was sort of
going to mess them up by going out there the 2nd day in a row.
Don't look surprised. It's a regular everyday occurence. Our
wonderful yuppies out there in their fancy boats, they need a few
for bait, they think not a second about pulling a crab trap.
They don't look at it like shop lifting. They don't look at it


like they're taking it out of Shorty's pocket. In their defense,
and I know, I found it two or three times when I was crabbing and
Shorty... Every now and then you'll come to a crab trap and it
will be empty and unlatched and there will be a plastic bag in
the bait wheel with a couple of dollars in it. It sort of
reinforces your faith in the human race. A lot of times you just
find them empty.

We couldn't have gotten the sport fishing industry to line up and
spend the social energy and hundreds of thousands of dollars and
given all the space in the Florida Wildlife Federation Magazine
We couldn't have got that bunch to get five hundred thousand plus
signatures on a strongly worded marine environment protection
amendment that had to do with the destruction of wetlands and
water quality. They couldn't or wouldn't do it because a lot of
people would not have signed that becuase it would have affected
them personally. If we weren't going to allow any waste water
that has reached terceary treatment. We've got this class 2
shellfish water inside an aqutic preserve adjacent to [the]
Iguana area and it no longer meets class 2 standards. Are they
going to do anything about it? Not a damn thing. Said Ernie
Fry, DEP regional director, he says Weatherall (she's our DEP
chief in Tallahassse) this is a test case we're going to see if
we can bring these waters back to class 2. But they're not going
to do anything. When they find out that it's caused by all the
canals that go into Marsh Landing and Sawgrass and all of that up
in there and the Players Club, when they find out what's causing
it and we know whats causing it, they're going to say, We can't
do anything about that. We can't impact this group economically,
we can't take jobs and harm economic growth in general and if you
consider the paving of Florida growth, that's a problem too. We
can't impact that segment of Florida's society to protect the
environment. Yeah you can kill the fishing industry. Now where
is the justice in that? Where is the sanity in that? You're
taking a food production area out of production, just that is
fundamentally wrong to do and we can't fix it and that really
frustrtes. It's really frustrating that those people won't back
us. They won't help and now the amendment is passed, now the
recreational industry feels that they've dsone their part to
solve the problem, that the commercial fisherman were raping the
environment, denuding the waters of harvestable species now
without addressing the key issue of water quality and without
actually increasing the size of the fertility of the field we've
simply taken from 100 people every year taking whatever this
field produces we've got 30 or 20 people taking and it's going to
appear and in reality there may be a short term improvement
because there will be fewer people harvesting what's available to
harvest What's happening is that this will lull everyone into a i
sense of complacency. That's the problem.. Look how things have

come back. In the meantime these people are letting somebody else
mitigate and the next time that they see a decrease who are they
going to blame and how in the world are they going to fix it
then? You've given them 5, 10, 20 years of additional time to
destroy what it is that you can't really replace. That is a big
mistake. If they had come with those petitions to the net ban
and followed it up with a petition or preceded it with a petition
to really do something in the state constitution about
discharges, I would have signed both of them and a lot of people
in our industry would have. But they aren't going to do it.


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