We've got water coming in!" the captain announced abruptly as he poked a flashlight through a torso-wide hatch to where the Detroit diesels fretfully thrumbled below.
Stunned by the statement, I did a quick assessment of the situation. I was on a small fishing boat a 20-mile swim from the nearest land, Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas. It was the dead of night in seas notorious for their sharks and hull-ripping coral. We were taking on water and, what's more, our depth-finding fathometer was on the fritz, making our proximity to that coral a troubling mystery. Black waves were grabbing hold of the idle craft and pounding on it broadside.
A leaking boat in dark and dangerous seas wasn't my only reason for anxiety, however. The captain was a Key West fisherman -- a "conch" in the local vernacular -- named Harvey Watkins, whom I'd met the previous day. All I'd really heard about Harvey was that he had once done prison time and might be a little crazy. His mates, Christian and Ramon, were strangers to me as well. And after having watched everyone aboard (including myself) dip into the beer cooler with great frequency all day, my confidence in our collective reflexes and judgment was at ebb tide.
This was a bit more than I'd bargained for when I showed up at Watkins' modest Key West bungalow the day before. I was looking for a story about government regulations that were creating a new endangered species in the southern tip of Florida: commercial fishermen. Watkins, I had heard, was one of the best of a dying breed of "crawfishermen," the area's jargon for lobstermen. He worked the distant and dangerous waters around the Dry Tortugas, which would soon become the site of the nation's largest "no fishing" zone, a disturbing new approach to fisheries management being pushed by federal bureaucrats, environmentalists, and others. This zone represents the boldest step yet toward the creation of a national network of marine wilderness areas, mandated by an executive order, that may eventually blanket large areas of U.S. coastal waters, depriving both sport and commercial fishers of their most fertile fishing grounds.
The waves continued to pound and I desperately tried to assure myself that this couldn't really be happening. I recalled with bitter amusement that this type of participant-observer reporting is sometimes called "immersion journalism." The captain and his crew (who had hurriedly emerged from the berthing space in nothing but briefs and rubber boots) began moving with amazing efficiency and confidence, quickly clearing away gear from the rectangular coffin lid shielding the boat's flooding bowels.
With practiced precision, Watkins and his crew found and fixed a ruptured engine intake hose that was the source of the problem -- one of a hundred acts of grace under pressure I saw the crew exhibit during what was, to them, just another routine haul out to sea. Technically, they're fishermen. But life at sea, I quickly began to appreciate, also requires them to be carpenters, diesel mechanics, electricians, butchers, chemists, medical corpsmen, and short-order cooks.
Spending even a couple of days in their world will make you understand that even the priciest lobster dinner is worth every penny. Quarters on Watkins' 48-foot Fryde Conch are spare and impossibly cramped. Life aboard is a constant battle against rust, mildew, and rot. The stench of bait clings even in a stiff breeze. The slop-covered deck pitches wildly, and working on it in high seas is a job for the Wallendas. There are a thousand ways to get slashed, crushed, snagged, speared, or dragged overboard, with no medical help -- save for a bottle of Captain Morgan's stashed in the wheelhouse -- within easy reach. The boat is a playground for tetanus. Scorpions nest in the rope coils. Competence and sound instincts are a must, because even minor mistakes invite major disaster. It's a difficult life, though men like Watkins love it and want no other.
Those are the unavoidable dangers of a fishing life. What really exercises fishermen like Watkins, he explained to me bitterly in our days together, are the threats from dry land: meddlesome government agencies and litigious environmental groups that have descended on this serene southern Florida archipelago with a vengeance, turning the island chain into arguably the most regulated stretch of real estate in the U.S. Few have been hit harder by the new regime than commercial fishermen, whose presence here has shrunken to a shadow of what it was. Tourists now search old Key West's waterfront in vain for its once-mighty commercial fishing fleet, the remnants of which have been banished to Stock Island -- a working class, seedy appendage to Key West where few visitors venture. There, folks like Watkins watch the clock run out on their livelihood, done in by often arbitrary and capricious regulations.
A Sinking Feeling
All Harvey Watkins ever wanted to be was a fisherman. He's a wiry, frenetic man of 51, with hair the color and texture of steel wool and a mustache bleached by decades in the Florida sun. He wears aviator glasses with tinted lenses and speaks in staccato sentences, gesturing wildly and flicking cigarette ashes when he gets wound-up. His accent somehow mixes the bayou and the Bronx, but is neither. Once he gets to know you, you quickly become "bubba," "skipper," "bro," or "brother."
As a kid he learned to build wooden boats under the tutelage of a revered neighbor. By 14, he was taking a skiff out at night and on weekends, glorying in the heyday of Key West's commercial fishing boom. Along the way he has been a lobsterman, a stonecrabber, a long-liner, and, for a brief time in the late 1970s, a marijuana smuggler for Colombia's Escobar clan. The "import business" was unbelievably wide open then. The perks were good and the paydays filled garbage bags with cash. But Watkins, like boatloads of fellow islanders, wound up serving time at a federal work farm at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base, winning early release for saving the lives of two drowning men. After prison he returned to fishing, thinking his days of trouble with the government were through. No such luck.
Watkins has a lot in common with another famous Key West fisherman, Harry Morgan, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's 1932 novel To Have and Have Not. Morgan turns to running booze and guns across the Straits of Florida to Cuba when his failing charter boat business no longer can feed his family. "I don't know who made the laws but I know there ain't no law that you got to go hungry," is how Morgan sums up his philosophy. "I been sore a long time."
Incessant government intervention has made plenty of people in the Florida Keys as sore as Morgan. Certainly that's the case with Watkins and the dwindling commercial fishermen, whose catches and exploits once fattened the local economy and animated its lore. In today's Key West, they often feel like pariahs, shunted by government rules, elitist transplants, busy-body environmentalists, and the tourist economy. A mangrove-like tangle of at least 22 federal, state, and local regulatory agencies has taken root here, each agency trying to carve out a domain for itself, creating a picture-perfect prison and disillusioning iconoclastic locals who migrated here precisely to escape mainland hassles.
Watkins has resisted these changes in sometimes-unconventional ways, earning a reputation as a hell-raiser and gadfly. He's painted his modest bungalow eye-burning shades of blue, green, yellow, and red, as if to give passing, tourist-laden "conch trains" the middle finger. And there's a large painted sign propped against its front porch, in case somebody doesn't get the message. It reads: "The B.O.W.E.L. Movement: Butt Out Worthless Environmental Liars. No Marine Sanctuary!" The sign is a reminder of the decade-long fight over the establishment of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which was created in 1990 in the face of overwhelming local resistance and which ushered in a new wave of rules and regulations. Watkins frequently paraded around town with the sign displayed in the bed of his pickup truck.
"My taxes are paying the salaries of the people that are trying their hardest to put me out of work," Watkins told me one night over beers in his back yard. "You shouldn't mess with the working people, bubba, cuz the working people are the backbone of America." Though he tries to maintain a sense of morbid humor about the continuous crisis of fishermen in the Keys, his anger and disillusionment creep in when talk turns to the government. "Stuff is building up out here," he says. "I can envision how somebody snaps."