Gulls glide in the gray sky above as the crew of Southern Grace works, hoisting bags of shrimp from the boat's freezer and handing them off to dock workers, stacking them on pallets.
John Donini maneuvers a forklift to scoop up pallets and load them into a truck that will distribute them nationwide. Some bags are set aside for Superior Seafoods Inc., the wholesale business his family owns. It's one of two shrimp companies still operating at Tampa Shrimp Docks.
Here, jumbos sell for $8.60 a pound to faithful customers who stop throughout the day.
"Freshest shrimp you can get,'' says Phil Sorensen, 52, who appears at Superior just as workers are about to finish unloading.
The Clearwater resident works nearby and makes periodic trips to stock up. He and his wife pop them in the freezer and cook a handful at a time whenever the mood strikes.
"We do buffalo shrimp; we do shrimp cocktail; we do bacon-wrapped with barbecue sauce; we do blackened skewers on the grill.''
Not much else is happening on this sleepy spit of land along Causeway Boulevard, south of Ybor City. Idle shrimp boats line the docks behind Superior and its next door neighbor, Versaggi Shrimp Corp. Tugboats and barges occupy the docks to the north, the Tampa skyline beyond. A massive phosphate loading plant looms on Hooker's Point, directly west across the dark green water.
The walk-in retail trade here has improved steadily since late last spring when Port of Tampa security, which tightened in the wake of Sept. 11, eased up at the shrimp docks.
Before, the place was less than welcoming, with a guard stationed at the entrance gate. "People who came and bought shrimp had to show IDs, and if you didn't have your ID, you couldn't get in,'' says Ernie Donini, John's cousin. People felt "it was more of a hassle than it was worth.''
Port authorities re-evaluated security in light of budget constraints and decided to transfer the guard elsewhere. "We're not really a security risk, we're shrimp boats,'' Ernie Donini says. "I mean, I tried to explain that from the beginning: We're shrimp boats.''
Donini, whose father and uncle started Superior, put out flags at the easy-to-miss entrance, advertising shrimp sales to passing motorists. Though the entrance gate remains closed, and a sign still warns: "RESTRICTED AREA, KEEP OUT," regulars know they can drive in through the open exit gate.
Otis Monteiro, 48, of Brandon, started coming by as soon as he realized the shrimp docks were open for retail business.
"They're bigger, they're better, and they come from the United States,'' he says, picking up a box at Versaggi. "You go to a grocery store and you have no idea where the shrimp you bought came from.''
The two old family companies —Versaggi is celebrating its 100th year, Superior its 60th — send out their own fleets of shrimp boats. Superior also buys from independents, like Charles Parrish of the Southern Grace.
Owners of the wholesale companies say they've seen most of Tampa's once-thriving shrimp boat fleet vanish as cheaper, farm-raised shrimp from Asia decimated the business.
"We survived by tightening our belts and running a tight ship,'' says Sal Versaggi, whose grandfather started the company.
Parrish complains that the situation is made worse by restaurants whose menus falsely list the foreign, farm-raised product as shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico. Parrish, who always double-checks with the server, can easily tell the difference.
"When you eat fresh gulf shrimp, there's a crispness to them, a flavor to them — it's no comparison. It saddens me as a shrimper and also as an American that so much of the public is misled on what they're eating.''
The 54-year-old Parrish started working on a shrimp boat in 1976, right after graduating from Plant City High School. He bought the 73-foot Southern Grace 29 years ago.
"I like the freedom of it. Of course, being my own boss is a good thing.''
Shrimping has made a good life for his family, he says, enabling him to raise three daughters. But the last 15 years have been tough, and the future looks bleak. Fuel and maintenance costs have risen while domestic shrimp prices hover at 1976 levels, he says.
Parrish and his two crew members — one of them his 21-year-old son-in-law, William Hammock — go out for three weeks at a time. They sleep during the day and work at night when the shrimp, which hide in the sandy sea bottom during daylight, are on the move. The boat drags four 45-foot nets, and its hold can accommodate up to 40,000 pounds of shrimp. The crew hauled in 10,000 pounds during a recent outing.
Workers separate them by size, pack them in net bags, and toss them into brine water that's kept at 10 degrees below zero, which freezes the shrimp rock hard in minutes. The bags are stacked according to size in the frigid hold.
The full moon over the sea, a sight most love to behold, just costs Parrish money. It gave him fits this last trip, causing the older, larger shrimp to react as they would in daylight and bury themselves under the sand. "I literally had to pick up in the middle of the night and quit.''
He says he'll time it better next trip.
At the docks, once the unloading is done, Superior's workers rinse a portion of the shrimp, pack them in 5-pound boxes and stack them in freezers for people like David Barnhill, 48, of Albany, Ga. On his way north, the tanker driver saw the signs and developed a sudden appetite for seafood.
"I'll be home in five hours,'' says Barnhill. "They'll be ready to cook when I get home.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.