Lives on the sea

This is part of an occasional series looking at how the coast and the ocean off the Lowcountry are changing, and what it means for a region where people have made a life and a living for generations in tune with the sea. For more stories from the series, go to postandcourier.com/livesonthesea.

OFF STONO INLET -- An east wind isn't good. The crew knows that as the shrimp trawler plows through 3-foot swells in the cold dark. The catch has fallen off since October. With only a day left in the season, few other boats will bother to launch.

But the Mrs. Judy Too has fuel left in the tank. The dock price of shrimp rises as the catch falls. And you never know, Capt. Tommy Edwards said.

The boat pulls out at 5 a.m. Monday to get from Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant a few miles offshore by the 6 a.m. drop-the-nets time. Edwards doesn't like to miss it. Shrimp tend to move just about daylight, and on a falling tide, that means they can move right into the nets. But an east wind drives right into a falling tide, slowing it down and making it harder to find shrimp.

"It can make or break your day," Edwards said.

Tuesday was the last day until May, at least, that those picturesque shrimp boats will drop their nets along the beaches and bring back local shrimp. Last May, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources delayed the season opening for a month, to give shrimp more time to repopulate after a crustacean-killing cold last winter.

DNR wildlife biologists worried they faced the sort of crisis they saw in 2001, when prolonged water temperatures about 46 degrees destroyed nearly

all the adult shrimp. The catch took two years to recover. This season, though, the catch improved steadily if slowly into the fall.

"We saw fewer numbers, but when those fewer shrimp were caught, they were bigger," wildlife biologist Larry DeLancey said last week. That could mean a bigger spawn the next year, he said, "a decent little spring. It depends on the winter."

Edwards had only three good months this season.

"The only reason I made any money, the only thing that's helped me all these years, is I have more and more people to come buy at the dock," he said.

'Going to Stono'

A good catch is 1,000 pounds or more. Today, Edwards is hoping for less than half that amount, four or five baskets.

"All right, fellows," he said.

Out in the biting wind, crew members D.J. Jenkins and Joe Isaac drop a trap net, a small net used to check for shrimp. If the trap net comes back with enough shrimp, the crew drops long funnel nets from the outriggers off each beam.

Those nets are dragged along the bottom behind "doors," wooden planks that do look like doors. The drag stirs up the bottom mud and shrimp for the nets to snare.

No one is surprised when the trap net comes back with only a few shrimp. "We're going to Stono," Edwards said with a tight look on his face.

Catching tiny shrimp isn't easy. They move back and forth, depending on wind and tide. Shrimpers watch for muddy water, a sign the shrimp might be stirred up. But mostly it's just knowing your spots and guessing. Where they were yesterday gives you the best read where they might be today. But winds have kept the Mrs. Judy Too at dock for half a week.

Mrs. Judy Too is a 70-footer with a wood-paneled pilot house and galley, heated by space heaters. Up on the wall just inside the door are tacked five $1 bills, cash that the nets pulled in. In the 1980s, it was so common to pull in money off Folly that the joke was somebody must have robbed a bank.

The reward and romance of those days are gone.

'The big catch'

Shrimper after shrimper is giving up the trade, driven out by higher costs and wholesale prices that haven't kept up because of cheaper farm-raised imports. Few younger shrimpers take over. About 400 boats are licensed today, a fourth of the number at the industry's peak in the early 1980s.

The Mrs. Judy Too crew members are each in their 50s and have been at this much of their lives. Isaac is playful with a cackling laugh. He's a sea urchin: When he's not out on a boat somewhere, he's working on boats ashore.

As he sorts through a net's catch for shrimp, he sets aside brown starfish for his wife to make crafts. On an impulse, he takes a big bite out of a live jellyfish, swallows and grins.

"Sea apples," he said.

Jenkins is given to leaning on the heaving rail and watching the seas. He fries up venison nuggets to go with the sausage and grits for breakfast. When he's not crewing, he's a drywaller.

Edwards first worked the Shem Creek docks as a 14-year-old on weekends. He's businesslike: When he wants the nets hoisted to check the catch, he gestures with a simple upward flip of a finger.

There's not much thrill for him anymore except when a net pulls up bulging with shrimp. He ekes out a living so far by selling direct to the customer off the dock, where he gets a better price than wholesale. Docked on Shem Creek between the higher profile shrimpers Magwood Seafood and Wando Seafood, he sells by word of mouth.

The job used to be fun, he tells you.

"You threw the shrimp on the dock (to load the wholesale trucks) and went home. Now you're on the phone all day. You might as well be a retail store," he said.

The sun rises into strips of fiery white and red clouds. The chopping seas pulse navy blue. After a few tries, the trap net finally pulls in 19 shrimp.

Isaac and Jenkins look at Edwards, and he gives the finger gesture: Drop the nets.

They trawl and trawl for six hours until the tide turns. Only a basket and a half is caught. No shrimp, no pay. The men work for a percentage of the catch price. It's the end of the season. Edwards has to check his crab pots on Tuesday. He won't go out.

"That's the big catch," Jenkins said as he drops in his last handful of shrimp into a basket. "It's all over."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.