SHRIMP SUCCESS IS NO SMALL FISHBy Chris McBeath
You would be hard pressed to find a local in Central Florida who hasn’t heard of Dixie Crossroads in Titusville, or who doesn’t hanker of the restaurant’s specialty rock shrimp. In fact, when you know the story, you quickly learn that the two are synonymous.
Known to fishermen as “peanuts” or “hardheads” for their especially hard shell, there was a time when shrimpboat crews literally shoveled rock shrimp over the side as garbage, often chucking 5,000 10,000 pounds overboard while deckhands sifted to find brown shrimp. That was until Dixie Crossroads owner, Rodney Thompson decided to reverse the trend, and in doing so he spawned an entirely new industry.
|One of Florida’s most exciting rites of spring involves ‘dippin’ shrimp during annual shrimp migrations. Armed with long-poled nets coolers, elaborate lighting systems and even small generators, enthusiasts line up on bridges to wait for nightfall when traveling shrimp become visible as they pass through circles of light illuminating the dark water. Many shrimpers arrive in the early afternoon and sit for hours, guarding what they hope will be the most productive spot from which to scoop the elusive crustaceans.
After inventing a commercially viable way to split their shells, Thompson literally created a new product and market demand for this little known oddity from the Atlantic ocean. Witnessing his success, other processing plants soon followed suit and today, rock shrimp, which have a taste more akin to lobster, are among the sweetest delicacies on the East Coast. Dixie Crossroads alone can serve up to a ton (2000 lbs) of rock shrimp, a dozen at a time.
The crustacean’s sudden popularity has also put pressure on sustaining its stocks. It wasn’t too long ago when rock shrimp were found as far up the east coast as Virginia, now they rarely make it much further north than Cape Canaveral. And the Thompson family has picked up the gauntlet.
An ex-commercial fishing boat captain for swordfish, tuna, grouper and snapper, Rodney’s daughter, Laurilee, knows first hand the ramifications of over-fishing. With her associate’s degree in oceanographic technology, Laurilee was able to apply scientific principles to her fish hunts, Laurilee became one of the industry’s biggest producers. “The fish didn’t have a chance”, she quips.
As a fifth generation Floridian, however, Laurilee has an affinity with the region and today, is using her experience, knowledge and down-to-earth business savvy to infuse the public agenda with environmental consciousness. And like her father, she has championed an entirely new industry for Titusville. Although still a tender balance between development and conservation, Laurilee is clearly the captain of this new eco-tourism economy. Not only did she create one of the States most successful birding festivals, among other events, she ensures that Dixie Crossroads partners regularly with groups such as the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Florida Natural Plant Society on various conservation programs. The restaurant itself is a showcase of native plants and butterflies and throughout its six dining rooms, you’ll find artwork, information and literature on the area’s natural habitat. And in case you were wondering? She has also been instrumental in putting a conservation program in place to ensure that we will all be enjoying rock shrimp for many generations to come.
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