Up and down

The South Carolina commercial shrimp harvest hasn’t varied much year to year in tonnage or value. But the spring/summer/fall catches have:

2007

Spring white: 182 tons

Summer brown: 407 tons

Fall white: 609 tons

Tons/value: 1,198/$5.7M

2008

Spring white: 176 tons

Summer brown: 289 tons

Fall white: 760 tons

Tons/value: 1,066/$6.7M

2009

Spring white: 160 tons

Summer brown: 80 tons

Fall white: 708 tons

Tons/value: 948/$5.5M

2010

Spring white: 101 tons

Summer brown: 301 tons

Fall white: 657 tons

Tons/value: 1,060/$7.1M

2011

Spring white: 10 tons

Summer brown: 231 tons

Fall white: 735 tons

Tons/value: 976/$7M

2012

Spring white: 314 tons

Summer brown: 137 tons

Fall white: 629 tons

Tons/value: 1,080/$8.5M

Source: S.C. Department of Natural Resources

Shrimp — those tasty native Lowcountry crustaceans — are looking slim so far for the spring and the summer. But commercial shrimpers say it’s early yet.

And if the past few years have shown anything, it’s that the always uncertain crop has been even more hit-and-miss.

The young white shrimp, the spring crop, are fewer and smaller than would be expected in recent S.C. Department of Natural Resources trawl net sampling in the estuaries. That’s because of the recent cold snap keeping waters cooler, biologists say.

“They need to do a lot of growing,” said Larry DeLancey of DNR.

There’s also concern that the summer brown shrimp, which are little more than larvae right now, might not have survived in good numbers in the colder water. The fall crop, meanwhile, would be the spawn of the spring crop.

The only good sign out there is that more shrimp than expected have been showing up in commercial clamming nets worked back in the creeks. That might mean the bulk of the crop hasn’t moved to the estuaries yet, and that gives some hope.

“There’s a scattering of them up and down the coast,” said Rutledge Leland, of Carolina Seafoods in McClellanville.

DNR usually opens the commercial season in May or June.

“It’s too early to tell. We’ll just play it by ear. Every year is different,” said Wayne Magwood, of the iconic Shem Creek shrimping family in Mount Pleasant.

Every recent year sure has been. Frigid cold spells in the 2010-11 winter killed so many shrimp that DNR delayed opening the commercial season until late June to give shrimp more time to repopulate. Biologists worried then that the losses would deplete the 2012 crop.

But after a warmer winter, the spring shrimp in 2012 showed up offshore so quickly and so many that DNR opened the season in April.

Shrimpers hoped for a bounty year but didn’t get one. The summer shrimp never really showed up, and landings were little more than half what they were the year before. Boats had to travel farther to get them, and high fuel costs ate into the thin profit margin. Then the fall shrimp came in below normal.

For the first time in his four-decade shrimping career, Magwood moved his boat north to Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, where good catches were being reported, to supply his dockside retail business. He stayed six summer weeks.

“Last year was a bad season. I think everybody was expecting a good finish,” he said. Instead, a lot of the boats were out of the water by December, for a season that doesn’t usually close until January.

While the tonnage of shrimp harvested statewide and its value have stayed roughly the same year to year recently, only about a third of the number of boats go out than did in prime years two decades ago, and captains are more selective about when and where.

High fuel costs and prices that don’t keep up, the competition from cheaper foreign farm-raised shrimp and other factors continue to eat away at the industry that once packed Lowcountry docks and coastal waters with so many boats they became an emblem of the place. Boats still operating have tended to get further into disrepair as owners put off the expense hoping for a better year, Magwood said. “It’s just getting worse every year.” He spoke Monday by telephone from Texas, where he’s piloting a crew boat for a dredge.

“I just had to do something to pay the bills,” he said.