For thousands of years, people in Florida have made their living from the sea. Surrounded on three sides by water, Florida has about 1,200 miles of coastline, more than any other state in the contiguous United States. Florida’s intimate connection with the ocean has helped shape its history, culture, and economy.
During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, commercial fishing played an important role in the settlement of the state, and waterfront communities were often major population centers. Newcomers were drawn to Florida by the promise of its rich, untapped natural resources, its unspoiled waters yielding bountiful harvests of sponges, mullet, mackerel, snapper, oysters, and more.
Forward-thinking innovators helped transform fishing into a modern commercial industry. In 1906 in Tarpon Springs, John Cocoris accomplished the first mechanized sponge dive by using a hand-operated compressor. In 1913 on Amelia Island, Billy Corkum adapted the otter trawl to catch shrimp, and the modern shrimp industry was born.
Over the years, Florida’s waterfront communities experienced cycles of boom and bust. They endured devastating natural disasters, including fires, hurricanes, red tides, and a ruinous sponge blight. But over and over communities rebuilt, responded to changing circumstances, and eventually recovered.
Today, Florida’s historic waterfront communities are once again in the process of reinventing themselves. In the wake of the net ban enacted in the mid-1990s, many of these communities are exploring new industries, including aquaculture and tourism. But even as times change, commercial fishing continues to be a mainstay of some waterfront economies. From Key West “pink gold” to Apalachicola oysters, wild-caught Florida seafood remains a premium product that is much sought after.