When one thinks of high school graduation gifts, cash, and maybe even a car, are the types of things that typically come to mind.
But when Key Largo's Ernie Piton Jr. graduated from Coral Shores High School this past June he received a gift of a very different sort from dad Ernie Sr. -- 230 crab trap certificates to help launch his commercial harvesting career.
With each trap valued at $100 or slightly more, that's no small gift. But while appreciative, Piton Jr. isn't satisfied.
"I'm happy with that but I want more," Piton Jr., 19, said one afternoon last week, a couple hours after returning with his dad from another long day on the water.
In following in his dad's footsteps, Piton Jr. is not alone among fishermen of his generation in the Middle and Upper keys. Another is Justin Bruland, 24, of Marathon, who came home to work with father Raymond Bruland after graduating from Florida State University in 2010.
"My friends who had just recently graduated really weren't doing well," Bruland said. "At the same time, you get away from the Keys for a long time, you miss it."
Still, at a time when ever stricter regulations have made it harder to enter into commercial crab fishing, and to make a living once there, people like Piton Jr. are a rare breed.
Though commercial fishing, fueled predominantly by lobster and stone crab trapping, is still the second largest industry in the Keys behind tourism, Piton Jr. said there wasn't another person in his graduating class last year who was interested in the line of work.
For most, the long days pulling hundreds of traps in the sun, wind, rain and waves can't compete against the prospects of a higher education and a comfortable air-conditioned desk job.
But not for the younger Piton.
"I don't like school," he said. "I like to do this. I like to be on the water."
Piton Sr., who has worked full-time as a fisherman since 1984, said he never pushed his son to take the same path.
But then again, he never had to. Ernie Jr. took to sea life from the get-go.
"I'll never forget, I was setting traps one day when he was 2 and he came up to me and said, 'Dad, the water's beautiful,'" the father said proudly. "It's nice to see your son follow you, but it's tough with the regulations."
Piton Jr. spent his early childhood enjoying the water. But by his mid-teens, young Ernie had already begun to turn the sea into a living, catching baitfish and selling them to local tackle shops and fishermen.
He's still doing that, using his own boat to pull his traps for pinfish, pilchards and goggle eyes on evenings and days off from what remains his full-time gig as a hand on his father's much larger vessel. Among Piton Jr.'s clients are The Yellow Bait House in Key Largo and Jack's Bait and Tackle in Florida City, he said.
But most days at this time of year, from early morning until late afternoon, Piton Jr. is near the stern of his father's boat, pulling lobster traps, one after another.
Of course, working so closely together, the father-son duo sometimes has its moments.
"We butt heads on stuff," said Piton Sr. "But seeing how he works back there, it does make you proud."
The younger Piton isn't much concerned about the lack of interest his peers have in becoming commercial fishermen.
"Less competition," he said.
But Piton Sr., who is currently the president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association board of directors, does worry about the future of the industry. There are plenty of people who move into the Keys in hopes of making a go of fishing, he said. But just as many end up pulling up anchor, having underestimated the value of local knowledge of the waters as well the overall difficulty of the trade.
In the meantime, young Conchs aren't just staying away because they're interested in a different future. They're also pushed away by the high cost of starting a new commercial fishing operation.
There were no traps fees when Piton Sr., now 47, entered the business. But these days, just the tags for the 2,000 or more combined lobster and stone crab traps that established fishermen try to deploy can cost well into six figures to obtain. And that's not counting other start-up fees, like the cost of the traps themselves, as well as a boat.
The older Piton said his second son Travis, who is now 15, hasn't decided yet whether he wants to be a fisherman -- and that's OK.
But it is important that commercial fishing remain a viable option for this generation of Keys natives.
"Where is the industry going to be in 20 to 30 years without young people coming in?" Piton Sr. said.