Remember going down to your local waterfront to get the “catch-of-the-day” right off the boat? Whether you lived by the ocean or you were on a trip to the coast, it was usually a place off the beaten path with special sights and the feel and smell of a salty breeze. While finding that type of opportunity today is becoming more and more difficult, when many people think about fresh seafood they still envision a small, not-so-new, fish-house situated right on the water with a bunch of fishing boats tied to an old dock with someone sitting out front like a character in “The Old Man and the Sea”. Good luck, right? Well, let me introduce you to the owners of Knight’s Seafood, which is just that type of place and a true gem hidden among the palms in a small town along the south Georgia coast.
Robert and Elaine Knight own and operate Knight’s Seafood, Inc. a shore-side facility that has served the shrimp industry “Since 1975” as it says on their storefront, business cards and T-shirts. Robert is the President, CEO, Dock Manager and Maintenance Department all rolled into one and he’s the first one in and the last to leave every single day. That’s how it is today for most small family businesses and especially for those in any sort of
commercial fishing industry. Of course, he gets plenty of help from his family, but it is primarily Elaine, his spouse of over 50 years, who runs the business internally. Like Robert, she, too, wears many hats in the family business where she juggles calculating the settlements with the boats, purchasing, sales, marketing, inventory and all the record keeping and accounts. She also has a long history in both a leadership role and in the politics of the southeastern U.S. shrimp fishery. At the dock, however, they are both equally involved on a daily basis in all aspects of the business.
Knight’s Seafood, Inc. is located in the “Port City” of Brunswick, Georgia – often referred to as the “Shrimp Capital of the World”. It has operated continuously since 1975 in the production of wild harvested shrimp. As a full service dock today, the company also owns and operates several assets necessary to running a successful, somewhat integrated business, however, when the property was originally purchased, it consisted of a single 150′ x 200′ lot on deep water with a piling dock and an old, wooden fish-house. Not long after acquiring it they replaced wood structure with a modest metal building and installed an ice machine. Unloading and packing shrimp in volume for wholesale was the sole business function at this time.
Captain Robert Earl Knight
“Captain Robert”, as he is now most commonly referred to, is the second generation of shrimpers in the family and today has over 60 years of experience in virtually every aspect of shrimping and maintaining vessels. And he has, in fact, spent most of his life on and around shrimp boats. Learning the trade from his father, Earnest Abraham Knight, he first worked on their shrimp boat “Billy Boy” when he was about 15. After learning what he could from his father, he bought his first boat, the “Captain Joe”, in 1959 in partnership with his longtime friend Joe Hale. They soon bought a second vessel and while Joe left the business a short time later, Robert never looked back, but he and Joe remain close friends today.
Over the next four decades he fished the waters off the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Key West, Florida trying his hand in many fisheries including, rock shrimping, trawling for blue crab, conching, scalloping, deepwater fish trawling, wreck fishing. He has built and owned many commercial vessels over his lifetime – having up to five large trawlers at one time and helping countless others manage their boats out of pure camaraderie. Even though he never finished high-school, like many of the fishermen of his generation, Robert is a maverick. He is the kind of unique person who can do anything he puts his mind to. He is an innovator who it seems can build or fix or do almost anything. He was typically among the first to fish in many areas that had not been tried before and among the first to try new types of gear. He relishes the challenge of almost any new venture, especially if there is money to be made.
In getting to know him one is immediately struck by his edgy sense of humor, the very direct way in which he communicates and the compelling sense that if he says he can do something – no matter how surprising it might sound – he probably can. It is likely this natural sense of his ability along with his vast experience and bluntly honest candor that has pulled in the many wayfaring vessels to unload at Knight’s Seafood for so many years. But whether it is a boat captain seeking to unload his catch on the back dock or a customer looking for -fresh seafood to buy at the front dock, it seems the first thing they always ask is “Where is the Old Man?” Whatever they might need, it is usually him they are looking for to help them get it done. On occasion the visitor might be an old friend looking for him to recount one his many sea stories like the time an eighteen wheeler drove through the barricade of the Sidney Lanier Bridge when the lift was up and it fell over a hundred feet crashing on top of Robert’s boat the “Morning Star” as he was headed out fishing at 4:00AM…..or about the disaster when a ship hit that same bridge sending numerous vehicles into the water and the Port called on Robert and Mr. Lewis (from the dock next door at Lewis Crab Factory since they had they most powerful boats) to take pressure off the ship – which was pinned against the bridge by the tide – by pulling and hauling on the ship’s stern for 6-7 straight hours to prevent further loss of life or damage and to allow rescue efforts to proceed…..or the time he allowed two boats to transport reporters to Cuba during the Carter presidency to cover the “Cuban Refugee Rescue Crisis” and ended up with them loaded with hundreds of Cuban men, women and children refugees and the vessels held-up for weeks in the dispute between the US and Cuban governments….and the list goes on, but those are stories for another time.
One family member told us “It may say “Knight’s Seafood – Since 1975” on the card, but actually its more like “Captain Robert Earl Knight since 1949”. That’s when he started and its with that experience and pride that we run the business today.
It is amidst all these endeavors that, in 1975, Robert decided to buy the small waterfront fish-house – a sizable undertaking – so he could unload his own boats on his own time. This is not a man takes kindly to waiting. Of course, its no surprise that one of the very first things he did was dig out and build a marine railway capable of hauling-out the largest shrimp boat of the day so that critical hull repairs and annual maintenance could be done right then, on the spot. Later on that they would add processing capabilities at the shore-side facility. It is right around this time when Elaine entered the business on a full time basis.
Elaine Walker Knight, aka “Miss Elaine”
Just as Robert Earl can be clearly described as the maverick he is, Elaine Knight is shaped by her position as the stalwart, family matriarch who began her family working as a nurse at the Brunswick Hospital. She would practice there and in private practices for nearly twenty years. Affectionately referred to as “Miss Elaine” by many on the waterfront, a conversation with her will often begin with a genuinely kind smile and warm greeting and the latest news about one of her four children or seventeen grandchildren. After a few specific questions though, it becomes very clear she has her own storied past within the industry that she and Robert have built their family business.
She recalls being slowly introduced to the business over several years as Robert needed someone to take care of the accounting and records for the boats. She recounts that from the 1960s well into the 1980s all one had to do to succeed in the shrimp industry was work hard – but very hard. Back then they often worked unloading boats until midnight or later. It was a simpler time then and the politics of fishing were limited to the occasional state regulation like the annual debate on when to open the season and many fishermen would attend the local meetings. It was during the 1980s with the Environmental Protection Act coming of age that it was clear the industry would need to take a more active role in the federal management of the fishery namely with the advent of TEDs (turtle excluder devices) and later BRDs (bycatch reduction devices). It is then that she was asked to be join the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and she speculates that the request was likely due to the good relationships they had built with several universities, the GADNR and other marine researchers during the days of fisheries development. She would ultimately serve the maximum allowed three consecutive terms serving two terms as the Council Chair.
From that time forward, Elaine has been a long time ambassador for the industry as an active participant in many capacities over the next three decades including numerous state DNR fisheries panels and committees, several terms as Georgia Shrimp Association Vice-President and Secretary, as a founding Director and first President of the Wild American Shrimp, Inc. (marketing) Board and a long relationship with the Sea Grant College Program at both the state and national levels, including many years on the National Sea Grant Program Assessment Team and two terms on the esteemed National Sea Grant Review Board. Among the numerous honors and awards she has received, she seemed to take the most pride as one of the three recipients of the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Georgia that she was presented along with philanthropist Susan Reynolds of R.J. Reynolds and oceanographer Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus who first conceived and proposed the National Sea Grant College Program in 1963.
As one would expect, Elaine remains active even today having served for the past ten years as a founding Director on the Board of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, the largest shrimp association in the country, including two terms as President and for which she has traveled to Washington, DC on numerous occasions on behalf of southeastern shrimpers. Similarly, “whether through appreciation, choice or curse”, she jokes, she is also a tireless worker and aid to the many local fishermen who come from all over the southeast seeking business information or other industry assistance they can’t get anywhere else.
“Through the years, we’ve worked hard as an industry to find win-win solutions whether we are dealing with researchers, regulators or environmentalists. As a result, I think our fishery is recognized as one of the most sustainable, best managed and reasonable fisheries there is today in comparison to others. If you know anything about fisheries, that’s no small accomplishment,” explains Elaine.
Knight’s Seafood Today
Over the years, Robert and Elaine have engaged in virtually every phase of shrimp production including harvesting, wholesale packing, processing, and retail sales. They expanded on the original facilities, and today a second and larger building houses offices, ice machines, coolers, freezers, grading equipment and a proper retail market. They also acquired additional property and expanded their dock space and now have available over 400’ of dock space for commercial vessels, which can accommodate about 25 vessels and the railway was upgraded a few years ago to meet new regulations. It is one of the last two shrimp docks that remain in Brunswick where there once used to be literally dozens of shrimp docks that stretched all the way up the East River.
Although they dabbled in other fisheries, the principal product at Knight’s Seafood is and always has been wild-caught white shrimp. The shrimp from the south Atlantic coast are known for their superior taste and this attribute provides for a good demand and makes for a dependable business.
Elaine continues, “As a family business we are lucky to have plenty of help all of whom have experience and a good working knowledge. We rely on our son, George, who’s been in and around the business his whole life and our three daughters Denesha, Susan and Robin, who we are happy to have all living back home in the Brunswick area. Then of course there are in-laws and grandchildren–who would be the fourth generation of Knights in the industry.”
“We feel very blessed. In some ways we know the business has enabled us to remain a close-knit family – whether we wanted to or no,” she jokes.
So, if you are ever in the southeast Georgia area and want to pick-up some fresh shrimp that really does come “right off the boat” and where the shrimp boats really are tied up out back, you can still visit the dock at Knight’s Seafood in Brunswick and enjoy a glimpse of how it used to be to get fresh seafood.