DNR: Population looks healthy, plentiful

Shrimp-baiting season officially has started, and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources made one last check on the species before recreational fishermen cast their nets.

On Sept. 10, crustacean biologists Jimmy Jenkins and Larry DeLancey took the department's shrimp trawler, the Silver Crescent, out to Charleston Harbor, where they caught and evaluated shrimp in three locations.

The biologists trawled in the harbor near Fort Johnson for 15 minutes and then brought up their test nets. They found them brimming with not only several pounds of white shrimp, but also bluefish, cannonball jellies, gray trout, moon fish, crabs, a squid, anchovies and several other types of fish many people have never heard of.

DeLancey and Jenkins sorted through the catch, separating shrimp from the rest. They threw all nonshrimp back into the harbor, to the delight of a noisy flock of gulls following the boat. Then the biologists took a closer look.

"It was a decent catch," DeLancey said. "Above average."

That's good news to recreational fishermen looking to get a piece of the shrimp population for themselves.

DeLancey said that when there's a drought like the one occurring throughout the state, shrimp will mosey farther offshore, where the water is cooler.

But the white shrimp they caught seemed plentiful. DeLancey and Jenkins worked together to document the weight of the shrimp with a scale (they caught 6.2 pounds) and the size of the shrimp with a ruler. Jenkins picked out about 10 shrimp and called out their lengths. The largest shrimp measured nearly 5 inches long.

But they also noted other characteristics, such as discolorations or abnormalities. Some of the shrimp were molting and had just shed their shells. Others had a brown spot on their gills.

"We think it's stress-induced," Jenkins said. "That's as much as we understand it."

With cooperative research among them and other biologists and agencies, DeLancey and Jenkins can do gene mapping, population predictions and monitor the span of the spawning season. Shrimp are at the mercy of winds, tides, water temperature and storms. Nature can change the population drastically. For example, if the water temperature drops below 47 degrees for more than five days, there could be a winter shrimp kill, Jenkins said.

DeLancey and Jenkins do monthly evaluations of the shrimp population in the Charleston area, and their tests can alert them to a problem with the species.

"If something is catastrophically wrong, we have the right to close the shrimping season," Jenkins said. The season was closed only one time, after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, he said.

After the harbor near Fort Johnson was tested, the researchers moved on. The next two batches of shrimp the biologists pulled up near Mount Pleasant were even bigger than the first.

They had so much shrimp, they kept 10 pounds and threw back the rest. Four horseshoe crabs came up with the net.

The biologists measured the horseshoe crabs' weights and lengths before throwing them back. Jenkins said they are a federally managed species and their sizes need to be recorded. The gulls weren't even interested.

The largest shrimp measured in the second batch was close to 6 inches long. DeLancey took a few and threw them into a pot on the small stove inside the boat.

From now until Nov. 12, anyone can catch fresh, local shrimp with a shrimp-baiting license.

A license for residents costs $25. For nonresidents, it's $500. Fishermen can catch enough shrimp with their heads still attached to fill a 48-quart cooler per day, or 29 quarts without heads.

DeLancey said there's been a decline in shrimp-baiting licenses the past few years, from nearly 16,000 licenses in 2000 to a little more than 10,000 last year.

Jenkins hopes that number goes up.

"People have a right to do this — whatever the (natural) resource has to offer," he said. "It's a great opportunity for children, family vacations, it's the sport of doing it and enjoying every bit of Mother Nature. We try to inspire new groups."

The department is making sure the shrimp population is healthy and plentiful for these new groups.

"Shrimp is so socioeconomic to South Carolina. With all the people (the industry) supports, it gets into multimillion dollars," Jenkins said.

"Ours is small compared to the Gulf Coast, but it's important enough that we need to use state agencies to monitor (the shrimp population) to get a long-term view," he said. "This should be done with all animals."

Jenkins and Delancey kept the shrimp they measured and put them into plastic bags to bring back to the DNR lab for further testing.

Recreational fishermen don't use trawlers with nets, but use cast nets and bait and bring in shrimp. The cast nets can be found at bait and tackle stores.

DeLancey said good spots to get shrimp are right off the James Island Yacht Club, at James Island Creek and along the Ashley River.

And the local shrimp are tasty. Delancey's pot of shrimp, only enhanced with a few spices, were perfectly pink and plump, and ready to enjoy. They were ready to eat about 20 minutes after they were pulled from the water.

Shrimp-baiting licenses can be downloaded at www.dnr.sc.gov/fish/shrimp.html.

Call 953-9312 for more information about the season's dates and requirements.