The state recreational Gulf red snapper fishing season is underway. Pensacola has a long history of red snapper fishing. Commercial fishermen began traveling to Pensacola to fish for them in the 1840s. The industry was interrupted by the Civil War, then picked up in 1865.
Nicole Bucchino is public archaeology coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, Northwest Region. Bucchino wrote her thesis on the history of the fishing industry in Pensacola and designed a new exhibit on the subject at FPAN’s Destination Archaeology Resource Center in downtown Pensacola.
“Around the turn of the century, snapper fishing is one of a few main industries in Pensacola,” Bucchino said. “We also, of course, had the lumber industry, but also brick making was very huge. We have the Navy yard around the same time, which also brought a lot of jobs to the waterfront. But along the Pensacola waterfront, snapper fishing was huge.”
In 1872, the first fish house was constructed in Pensacola. Fishermen brought the fish here to be processed, packaged and then shipped either by rail or boat up the east coast. Red snapper became the focus of the commercial fishing industry, as the fish were abundant and easy to catch. Bucchino says overfishing began in the late nineteenth century.
“You have some folks who were fishing from Pensacola who noticed this, and there were a couple of articles about it, so they saw these things were happening and not really understanding why, in that time period, so they eventually just abandoned it and went to Mexico,” Bucchino said.
By the mid-20th century, red snapper was overfished in the shallow waters near the continental shelf off the coast of Florida. Fishermen began traveling to the Yucatan Peninsula to catch snapper there to keep up with growing demand for the fish.
To aid in her research, Bucchino looked at the archaeology of three recovered commercial fishing vessels, which were found offshore near Warrington, in the Blackwater River, and off the coast of Carrabelle, Florida.
“Mostly what I was looking at, as far as the ships go, was the trends in their construction over time,” Bucchino said. “What we see is that these ships are getting bigger and bigger to try and keep up with the demand for going farther and farther off shore to get the fish, as well to make the trips worth it and make bigger catches while they’re doing it. So it was kind of a spiral of overfishing and growing demand at the same time that were causing these vessels to increase in size, until eventually it became unsustainable.”
In the 1970s, Mexico passed an exclusive economic zone that prohibited American fishermen from fishing for snapper in its country’s waters. By the, commercial fishing was fading in Pensacola.
“The industry that centered around fishing here kind of transformed into recreational fishing,” Bucchino said. “It’s also a growing era of tourism. So, bringing tourists here to catch these kinds of things, whereas it wasn’t as viable commercially anymore.”
In the 1980s and 90s, regulations on snapper fishing were more strict for commercial vessels than recreational fishermen, leading to shorter federal and state fishing seasons every year. This year, the federal season was set for nine days, the shortest in history, and ends on July 9. The state season was set for 52 days and will continue through July 14.
An exhibit on the history of red snapper fishing in Pensacola, featuring artifacts recovered from commercial fishing vessels, is currently on display at FPAN’s Discover Archaeology Resource Center.
Katya Ivanov, WUWF News