A Shrimping Legacy Three Generations (and Four Brothers) Strong

By Leslie Stair / Photography By Bob Thompson | December 15, 2016
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versaggi brothers
Joe, John, Sal and Fred Versaggi on the docks where they run the shrimping company their grandfather founded in the late 1800s.

On the Water
 

It’s shortly after midnight aboard shrimping vessel Sea Explorer, not five days into a threeweek journey.  Darkness envelops the still, windless night with only a mere whisper of a moon, perfect for shrimping since the dark encourages the nocturnal shrimp to emerge.

The boat slows as the crew prepares to release the nets, which will skim the bottom of the sea floor, a “tickler chain” creating a vibration that causes the shrimp to jump and hit the top of the net, before getting funneled toward the back. After a few hours, the nets are hoisted onto the boatand opened, a bountiful catch spilling out across the deck. The crew separates out the shrimp from other sea life that’s been pulled in, removing the heads of the largest shrimp and placing the catch in bags, then into a large vat of super-cold brine that flash freezes the shrimp in a matter of minutes. The shrimp are then taken out of the vat, drained and placed in a refrigerated compartment.

It’s another busy night for the three-man crew of the Sea Explorer, one of thousands that the Versaggi Shrimp Company has had over its century-plus history.
 

rock shrimp
Rock shrimp are related to more well-known pink and brown shrimp, but have hard exteriors that are difficult to remove by hand. Once cracked, the meat inside tastes similar to lobster.

Family Tradition
 

The origins of the Versaggis interest in shrimp began with Salvatore Versaggi, an Italian merchant marine who, after a traditional match-making, traveled with his young bride to the United States to join her brother, who had begun shrimping in Fernandina, Florida, in the late 1800s. Salvatore owned a fleet of 10 boats when he died as a young man at 49 and left his wife and five boys to carry on the legacy.

The second generation spread across the country, but despite the distance, worked together to keep the shrimping legacy alive, exploring shrimping beyond local borders including South America, French Guyana and Brazil, ultimately ending up back in Florida in 1993.

Today, Salvatore’s grandson and namesake, along with his brothers John, Joe and Fred, is proud to continue the tradition right here in Tampa.

“After a lot of years together we can get testy,” Sal laughs, “but we still work together closely.”

In summer, the Versaggi Shrimp Co.’s fleet of six boats – Sea Explorer, Warrior, Fortuna, Night Hawk, Sea Rider and Raven – heads north from Tampa, through Tarpon Springs and Apalachicola, then up the Gulf Coast as far as Texas. Around October the fleet heads back through Tampa ending in the Florida Keys by the time winter weather arrives.

Over the course of a year, the shrimpers will catch between 800,000 and 1 million pounds of shrimp, depending on conditions such as water temperature and salinity.

From the Source
 

The majority of the Versaggi’s catch is sold to companies who bread or otherwise process the shrimp before reselling. However, if you’re a little adventurous – the company’s location on the docks means you’ll pass freighters, warehouses and a chain-link fence to get to the yellow metal building where the brothers run the business – you can buy shrimp, Florida spiny lobster and sea scallops straight from the source.

Salvatore Versaggi
unpacking boat
Fred Versaggi
Photo 1: A photo of the elder Salvatore Versaggi, who founded the shrimp operation after immigrating from Italy to the United States, hangs on an office wall to remind workers of the company’s legacy.
Photo 2: Workers offload their catch, which is packed in bags typically used for onions. Shrimp are sorted into the porous, net-like bags, then flash-frozen in a brine tank onboard to preserve freshness. 
Photo 3: Fred Versaggi shows off the crustaceans that are his family’s livelihood. 

Knowing where your food comes from is an extremely good thing in the case of shrimp. More than 90% of the raw shrimp available in the United States is imported from Asia, where poor conditions and pollution mean increased exposure to bacteria and, frequently, treatment with antibiotics. In fact, a 2015 study by Consumer Reports found that 60 percent of the more than 300 samples of frozen shrimp it tested contained bacteria such as salmonella, vibrio, listeria, or E. coli, with a portion of raw, farmed, imported shrimp testing positive for antibiotics, including those banned for food imported to the United States.

While wild-caught shrimp can obviously be exposed to pollution, the Consumer Reports study found it is far less likely to have bacteria and chemical residue. Further, U.S. regulations on fishing practices translate into less environmental impact overall. For example, commercial shrimpers including the Versaggis use turtle excluder devices that allow the vast majority of turtles and sharks to escape the nets if caught.

By buying from Versaggi, you’re literally getting shrimp right off the boat: the vessels are docked behind the warehouse, outriggers rising skyward, waiting for the next ocean adventure. And depending on when you visit, you may even run into some of the shrimpers who actually bring in the haul.

Even if you don’t see the action of shrimp being offloaded or the crew prepping to head out again, you’re likely to run into Sal or his brothers, as they live their family’s tradition, happy to share their passion for the bounty of the sea.

warrior shrimp boat
Warrior is one of six boats in the Versaggi fleet.

On the Water, Continued
 

The voyage continues, the boat gliding across the glass-like Gulf, slightly disturbing the water. Phosphorescent micro-organisms glow in the dark and emit a beautiful blue-green sparkle. The lull of the boat, quietness of the evening, and magical phosphorescent glow in the Gulf create an enchanting night.

The life of a shrimper takes patience and being comfortable with solitude. It helps to “be a good reader and play a lot of solitaire,” says Salvatore Versaggi.

“It’s a quiet life,” he admits, but one that he’s proud of. “We’re carrying on a tradition,” he says, “and producing a good and wholesome product for our customers.”

As global imports continue to heavily influence the future of his industry, it’s a tradition well worth supporting.

Versaggi Shrimp Company, 2633 Causeway Boulevard, Tampa, 813-248-5089; open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Shrimp are sold in five- pound boxes and are market priced, approximately $7 to $13 a pound (cash only); rock shrimp, Florida spiny lobsters and sea scallops are also generally available.

Article from Edible Tampa Bay at http://edibletampabay.ediblecommunities.com/shop/shrimping-legacy-versaggi-shrimp-company
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