Byline: Brian D. Crecente
Jason D’Auria walks barefoot into the moonlit waters of the canal, pulls mosquito netting around his face and snaps on the lamp attached to his head.
In the distance, pairs of tiny red spots gently bob on the surface of the water. “I like the night because you can see everything,” the 20-year-old D’Auria says. “All of the alligators are up, and you can see their eyes glittering in your headlamp. I’d rather see them than not see them.”
He slowly walks through the water, net slung over his shoulder, careful to tread lightly.
Every few minutes he stops to pluck a snail or two from the surface and drop it into the net. Occasionally, one scoots past his toes, and he stoops to pick it up.
Soon the net fills and D’Auria heaves the 50-pound haul to the grassy bank of the canal, dumps the snails into a Styrofoam cooler and starts over.
During fall and winter, the snail treks are a nightly ritual for dozens of collectors like D’Auria who make their living criss-crossing South Florida in search of their next meal ticket.
Golden Ramshorn, Apple, Trapdoor – put in an order, and collectors know where to find these ornamental fish.
Ask them for Peruvian Giants, and more often than not they come to Palm Beach County, looking to score a mother load of the softball-size snails that can fetch as much as $1.50 a pop.
“It’s a pretty lucrative job,” said Richard Bradwell, owner of the Neighborhood Tropical Fish Farm in Miami. “But you have to be crazy to do it. They’re climbing through the mud with water moccasins, poisonous insects.”
Despite the danger, few collectors are killed in pursuit of their quarry.
In July, Ricky Reddick, 49, of Gibsonton, near Tampa, was looking for snails in a suburban Boynton Beach canal when he fell face first into 18 inches of water and died. His business partner, Kenneth Peterman, found him in the canal near U.S. 441 and Boynton Beach Boulevard about 2:30 a.m. The Palm Beach County medical examiner determined Reddick died of a ruptured aneurism.
Bruce Kraus, owner of Kraus Tropicals in Riverview, near Tampa, said the pair were among several collectors he had hired that week to collect Golden Ramshorn snails.
Kraus, who has been in the business first as a collector then as a farmer for 15 years, has about a dozen collectors who work for him. Each turns in thousands of requested ornamental fish a week, which Kraus turns around and sells to aquarium suppliers around the world.
“I sell over 1 million snails a year,” he said. “Florida is where the country gets its snails. It’s a big industry.
“A lot of people have aquariums, and sooner or later they are going to want to put snails in them.”
According to a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida aquaculture farmers reported sales of $86 million in 1999. Tropical fish sales made up a little more than half of that with about $43.2 million.
That accounts for more than 80 percent of the ornamental fish sold in the entire country, USDA officials say.
No one tracks the sales of collected ornamental fish, USDA officials said.
“Aquarium business is the second largest hobby in the United States,” said Bradwell, who raises half a million snails in cement vats at his fish farm.
When Kraus starts to run low on a specific fish or snail, he often calls up his collectors and tells them what he needs.
“Business is good,” he said. “I’m keeping these guys hopping.”
Hypostomus Plecostomus eggs, or “sucker fish” eggs, are one of the more popular things collected in the backwaters of Florida.
The fish, often placed in aquariums to clean algae off the sides, lay their eggs near the bottoms of some canals.
Collectors free-dive along the walls and slide their hands into wrist- to shoulder-deep holes feeling for the spongy racquetball-size egg sacks that sometimes lie there. A typical diver might collect 100 of the tangerine-colored egg clusters after checking 500 holes, D’Auria said. A good day brings in several hundred eggs. A good week could pay $2,000.
“I guess doing this is odd to a lot of people, but it’s an easy way to make a living,” said Kraus. “But the guys who do this would rather do this than spend the day packing groceries.”
Kraus acknowledges the inherent dangers in his business, but says the collectors usually live to tell their tales.
“We all have stories,” he said. “Anybody who does this has stories.”
James Heinke’s story is among the best:
“It happened on April 20, 1999. I still have medical bills I’m paying. I was in the Tampa bypass canal, we call it Six Mile Creek. We had seen her actually as we were working along the canal. She was 200 yards up. We worked till we were 50 yards from her. We see alligators all of the time, so it was no big deal. She was sitting there with her nose on the shore, her head and eyes out. She was just sitting there. We got out to try to get her to move, but when we walked that way she went straight down. We waited, waited like 30 minutes. I was ready to get done, ready for lunch. I decided we’d go back in. I walked into the canal, dove down and hung over this ledge to get the eggs. As soon as I went down I knew what she had done. The water was pretty murky, but I knew. I looked up and that was it, that was the only chance I had to see her. All I had time to do was flinch and turn my head to the right. She bit, but she didn’t hold on to me or nothing. When she bit me, her teeth grabbed the left side of my cheek from probably just below the corner of my eye down to the nose, through my lip and there was a large gash on top of my head. I pushed away and swam. I was quick about it. My dad was only 6 feet from me, and he had to ask what happened. I said, ‘That alligator bit me in the face.’ ”
After the attack, Heinke lost his taste for diving and snailing for awhile.
“I didn’t do anything like it for a year, then I started collecting snails again,” he said. “This is all I know. I quit school at the beginning of my senior year.”
D’Auria, Heinke’s cousin, also temporarily quit diving after he surfaced in front of a 15-foot alligator.
“It freaked me out,” he said.
But the next week, D’Auria was back at it again.
“I’m used to the money,” he said, “and it’s good money.”
D’Auria said he doesn’t plan to stay in the collecting end of the business for much longer. He uses the $400 to $2,000 he earns a week to help pay his way through college. He’s attending a community college near Tampa, but he hopes to transfer to Florida State University where he can earn a degree in business management.
Heinke, 23, doesn’t dive anymore and says he never will. Instead, he wants to start his own business reselling the ornamentals instead of collecting them.
“The money might be good,” he said. “But I want to be able to come home to my daughter every day.”
Staff researcher Geni Guseila contributed to this story.
This story originally ran in The Palm Beach Post on August 28, 2000.
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