Rodney Thompson developed the rock shrimp fishery off Florida's east coast. Then he saw it almost destroyed before he helped save it. A boat builder from Titusville, Thompson was convinced shrimpers would switch from their wood or steel boats and buy a big fiberglass shrimper if he would build one, which he did in 1968. The problem was no one wanted to buy his boat, so Thompson decided he would go shrimping himself. But he couldn't catch enough brown or white shrimp to make shrimping pay after years of trying.
Fortunately, though, the skipper of a NOAA boat conducting fisheries research off of Port Canaveral told Thompson about piles of shrimp in deep canyons about 20 miles off the coast. "We were hesitant, but we were starving," Thompson recalls, so he followed the NOAA boat out and soon thousands of pounds of shrimp were jumping around on his deck. While that was fine, the fact that the little shrimp had rock hard shells that made them an ordeal to peel wasn't. He tried sending samples to fish markets around the country, "but no one would bite," he says.
At the suggestion of his daughter, Laurilee, who skippered one of Thompson's fiberglass longliners, they tried splitting the shells, brushing them with a bit of butter and grilling them. They tasted just like little lobsters. Thompson was so enthused he designed a high-speed tail splitter, and started Cape Canaveral Shrimp to process shrimp from a growing fleet of boats based in Port Canaveral that suddenly had a new species of shrimp to catch.
To make sure the fishery was sustainable, Thompson and Captain Sam Vona, who owned most of the boats that supplied rock shrimp to Thompson's plant, made sure they stayed out of a vast area of deep-sea ivory coral reefs that was a nursery area for rock shrimp.
By the late 1970s, Cape Canaveral Shrimp was handling about 5 million pounds of rock shrimp a year and Rodney Thompson was dubbed The Rock Shrimp King. Ever the entrepreneur, in 1983 he and his daughter opened up the Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant and a retail operation, the Wild Ocean Seafood Market, both of which featured rock shrimp, of course. Business was great. But then, in the 1990s, some Gulf Coast shrimp processors, who had figured out how to modify their mechanical peelers to peel rock shrimp, dispatched some of their boats to cash in on rock shrimp.
Landings quickly doubled and then tripled to almost 25 million pounds, as the Gulf boats, loaded up. When landings started to collapse, the Gulf boats started to tow their nets through the rock shrimp nursery areas, plowing "goat trails" through the leveled ivory coral. That's when Rodney Thompson started to plead with federal fisheries managers to implement a management plan for rock shrimp, one that called for a limit of the number of boats in the fishery and a ban on fishing in the environmentally sensitive nursery areas.
Today, 10 years after the management plan was finally put in place, rock shrimp landings have bounced back to about 5 million pounds a year. Most of that haul is still processed at Cape Canaveral Shrimp, which these days is run by Mike and Jeanna Merrifield, family friends, and Sherri McCoy, Rodney's daughter (Laurilee runs Dixie Crossroads along with her partner Clay Townsend; Rodney finally retired in 2005 at the age of 85). In addition to rock shrimp, Cape Canaveral Shrimp processes white and brown shrimp from freezer boats that fish off the east coast of Florida, as well as a variety of fresh local finfish.