ST. PETE BEACH — In the late 1970s, while working on the Alaska pipeline, a teenager named David Harger began putting together his dream.
He saved enough money to buy a commercial fishing boat. Back home, he fished the Gulf of Mexico with his father and brother, catching grouper and snapper when fish were plenty and regulations few.
Around 1980, he opened his own wholesale shop on Gulfport's pier. Over the next several years, Mr. Harger shipped fresh fish across the country, something few others in the Tampa Bay area were doing.
Others followed suit. Demand for Florida fish increased. Eventually, half of the commercial grouper caught in the gulf was coming from the Tampa Bay area — a fact that remains true today.
Mr. Harger died on Tuesday in Scranton, Ark., the result of a brain tumor. He was 55.
"Dave was the kind of guy you could pick up and drop on a rock in outer space, and he would find a way to make money with the dust," said Bill Houghton, vice president of the Madeira Beach Seafood Co.
Mr. Harger worked in several locations in St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg over 15 years before moving to Arkansas in the mid 1990s. Until two years ago, he returned each winter to sell mullet and roe in Pinellas Park.
Friends describe Mr. Harger as an astute businessman who took risks, a Type A personality who knew when to relax his demands.
"He always looked like he had kind of a half-smile all the time." said Bob Aylesworth, 55, who competed with Mr. Harger for business on the Gulfport pier but later leased space to him.
Mr. Harger went into wholesaling — buying fish directly from commercial fishermen, then selling it — after becoming disillusioned his first few years as a fisherman.
He went from Gulfport to Pass-a-Grille, creating Harger's Fish Co. Mr. Harger began shipping grouper, tuna and swordfish to cities across the country, an idea considered risky by most.
"Dave was one of the first to start air-freighting fish out of the area," Houghton said. "Before Dave, it was always pretty much a closed market."
The strategy came at the right time.
"A lot of people in the country may not have known what our local fish are," Aylesworth said. "They came down here and ate our fresh grouper and stone crabs. And demand, I think, was created."
Mr. Harger changed the company name to Harger's Finest Catch and moved to St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor, where he bought and sold mullet. In 1995, a net fishing ban prompted his move to Arkansas.
His company raises thousands of turtles every year and ships them to China.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.