How One Woman Lives At Sea: Inside The Life Of A Florida Keys Lobster Catcher

Sep 2, 2013

It’s past sunset as 28-year old Captain Kelly Nichols Bourne and her crew return from a day of hauling lobsters traps. When she joined her father’s business a decade ago, she was the youngest female commercial captain in the Keys. She still is. Now she and her father drop about 7,600 lobster and 8,000 crab traps from the Gulf to the Atlantic.

This year, Tropical Storm Isaac destroyed nearly eight hundred traps and the amount of repair work is plenty. Lobster prices are down-and the demand from Asian markets isn't as strong as last year.  Despite the challenges, Bourne said since she was a girl, all she ever wanted to do is fish.

“When I first started, it was a big, BIG challenge, being a woman especially. I think the biggest person I had to prove myself to was my dad,” said Bourne.

Commercial fishermen in the Keys are tight communities but probably none more than in Conch Key. It’s a tiny island where lobster and crab fisherman live and work -- often enduring dangerous storms, long hours and backbreaking labor.  It used to be that fathers passed their businesses to their sons but, these days, it’s just as likely that the younger generation will try another career.

A Difficult Life For A Daughter

Bourne's father, Gary Nichols Jr., took some convincing.  His daughter was 18 when she started begging him to let her captain one of his boats.  He ignored for two years. He said he wasn’t sure it was a life he wanted for his daughter.

"The captain’s job sounds glamorous but down here you have Keys disease -- drinking, drugs and alcohol. People not coming to work and I need a guy to be consistent. We have a big business here and we need the boats to go out six, seven days a week,” said Nichols.   

Bourne's grandfather laughs when he remembers the day she got her chance. Her father needed a captain and there was no on available on the island. Gary Nichols Senior said all the guys on the island underestimated his granddaughter’s abilities -- that is, until they saw her park a big boat at the dock.  

“All these fishermen on the island were waiting for her to come in. She pulled that big boat up to that dock like it was piece of cake.  She gets off the boat with her ball cap and a pony tail in the back end of it sticking out of it and I’m saying, okay, guys, the male dominated world just come to an end,” he said.

The Daily Grind

Today, Bourne's husband, Brian, steers the boat while she winches and lifts the lobster traps from the ocean bottom. It’s heavy work. The traps weigh 150 pounds when wet. She stacks them on top of each other, five rows high. Her husband can’t help lift anymore because years of reeling and trolling big fish have permanently damaged his wrists.

“I have five herniated discs in my back and the things on my wrists. But I still feel strong. It’s just that I want to slow down a little bit,” says Bourne.

Kelly admits commercial fishing is a man’s job.

“It’s ball-busting work. I mean, it really is. When we put out traps, we start at midnight and we go around the clock for two days,” she says.  

The day is almost finished. Kelly and her crew work quickly, unloading the catch. Live lobsters are sorted, weighed and packed for delivery to restaurants in the Keys, up north, all the way to China.  She knows her five-year-old son is eagerly awaiting her return home so he can be tucked into bed. Most days she makes it, unless she’s short a crew member.

Tonight, she’s smiling. She’s going to make it home on time.

“Rough days obviously, you don’t like them very much but on a beautiful day, there’s nothing like it.  Looking at a sunset, seeing dolphin jump fish. The water is so beautiful.  When you are catching lobster of course you, are having fun,” she says.