MCLELLANVILLE — Foreign competition and roller-coaster fuel prices didn't help South Carolina's beleagured shrimpers, who say they've ended their worst season on the water since 2005.
"Fuel prices were bad, but shrimp prices were just as bad as the fuel," said boat-mate Mark Hancock, 24, of the "Betty H."
Hancock comes from a family of shrimpers, but said he's having second thoughts about keeping with it. For all his stress, uncertainty and hard work, his take-home pay averaged $10 an hour, he said.
"We're the lowest men on the totem pole and the hardest workers on the whole dock," he added. "We caught some shrimp this year but the price wasn't constant."
The state's nine-month commercial season officially ended Friday and will kick up again in the spring.
Part of the local fleet gave up early this year or moved on long before the closing bell. Most were diverted by the recent cold snap or opted to chase opportunities farther south, mainly Florida.
"Everybody is sick of their boats and sick of shrimp season and fed up with everything," said Jeff Massey, operations manager at Livingston's Bulls Bay Seafood, as he pointed toward quiet docks.
Reasons for the poor season abound. Pressures from overseas competition remained constant, but fuel costs were an even bigger drag. Though prices ebbed late in the season, July diesel costs ran more than $4.70 a gallon, double the previous year.
The price doesn't include the add-on road taxes drivers pay at land pumps.
Throw in the cost of a crew and ice, and profits disappeared. "If you didn't catch 300 pounds (per trip), you weren't breaking even," Massey said.
In the good days of South Carolina's shrimping industry, as short as 12 years ago, there seemed to be enough shrimp for everyone, and gas prices weren't the great gouger they are today.
Since then, the number of boats here has dwindled sharply. As late as 2007, the tally of state commercial trawling licenses was a third of what it was 15 years ago, with under 360 license holders.
"I remember seeing 30 boats off the harbor one morning," recalled Clay Cable, vice president of the S.C. Shrimpers Association. "It's very rare to see more than two or three boats now."
No one is sure where this season's haul will finish. The Department of Natural Resources said shrimpers landed 1.5 million pounds of shrimp in 2007, according to media reports, while figures for 2008 are not yet available.
Cable said modern-age pressures are too many, starting at the bottom with a recreational shrimp-baiting season that begins in the nurseries, and at the top, from farm-raised catches and imports.
Unless the native fleet can right itself, the numbers of South Carolina home-ported boats will fade quickly, he said.
"You've got a few people that are going to hang on, that are going to make it," he predicted. "But the real chance to make any profit shrimping is gone because the prices have been driven down so hard."
Massey said he's seen shrimpers already take steps to find other lines of work, while previously, a good shrimp season might mean more time off. Some have immediately jumped into other jobs, such as oystering.
Cable said he's not overly optimistic about the future, and he related the story of a shrimping friend, a boat captain in good health, who has shrimped nearly four decades, but recently opted to give it up completely.
He sold his boat to someone in Trinidad.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5551.