Lowcountry shrimpers fighting for survival draw strength from annual blessing in Mount Pleasant
MOUNT PLEASANT — Capt. Ken Ezell, one of those hardy Shem Creek shrimpers, can’t wait to go out on the Easy Lady and see what treasures the ocean might have for him.
“I love commercial fishing,” Ezell, a stocky, sunburned man with a ready smile, said during a rare break at the annual Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival Sunday. “Crabbing is one of the most peaceful things you’ll ever do. You go out there in the morning with your cup of coffee and you’ve got your foot propped up on the rail of the boat. You just have that anticipation, what am I going to catch today? You get to watch the sun rise and sometimes, if you’re really working hard, you get to watch it set. I never get tired of that. I can’t think of a more fulfilling profession.”
Yet he has never taken his 4-year-old son aboard his boat, a 38.5-foot Chesapeake Bay Deadliner crab boat that he also converts for shrimp or sharks.
“I won’t let my son near my crab boat,” Ezell said. “I don’t want him to fall in love with it like I did. I just don’t see a future in it for my son.”
Ezell was one of 10 shrimp boats in the parade of boats at Mount Pleasant’s Memorial Waterfront Park and Pier Sunday. There used to be about 30 boats in the parade not many years ago.
Ezell was wearing a shirt with a logo for Sandlapper Water Tours. He’s taken up a second job to make ends meet. He operates The Palmetto tour boat when he’s not shrimping or crabbing. Most of the other shrimp boat captains have also taken second jobs in recent years.
Wayne Magwood, longtime captain of the Winds of Fortune, has been working for a dredging company in Texas. This was the first blessing of the fleet he has ever missed in more than 25 years, because he couldn’t leave his job in Texas.
“He was just torn up about it,” said his daughter, Tressy Magwood Mellichamp.
Donnie Brown, captain of the Megan Elaine, has been working for a towing company in North Carolina until the shrimp season starts.
“It got so bad, we had to try to find something to make it through the winter,” Brown said.
Fuel prices have been rising and shrimp prices have been dropping with farm-raised foreign imports. Fortunately for the shrimpers, there’s still a market for local shrimp.
Brown is 54 and has been shrimping since he was 17 years old. He looks the part with his black beard, black ponytail and black captain’s hat. When asked if he would have done the same thing if he had known at age 17 what he knows now, he didn’t hesitate. Absolutely. He’s a shrimper.
“I ain’t never looked back,” he said. “It’s in my blood. I’m just Donnie.”
The blessing of the fleet may seem like an antiquated tradition, but the shrimpers say it means a lot to them.
“This is the highlight of our year,” Ezell said. “It really makes a difference, just to know that people still care about the industry.”
The shrimp season has not yet opened in South Carolina. The date will depend on when the state Department of Natural Resources says enough shrimp are spawning.
Local shrimpers used to travel to Florida or Georgia to catch shrimp, but now the cost of fuel, coupled with the lowered price of shrimp, makes the trips too expensive.
Ezell cuts his fuel bill by mixing cooking oil with the diesel fuel in his 4-71 Detroit two-stroke engine. He said he wouldn’t put cooking oil in a more modern engine because of the computer chips.
Despite the challenges, he’s not ready to accept the end of the American shrimper. But they will have to start using lighter, more fuel-efficient boats.
“There will always be somebody that wants to go chase shrimp, and there will always be somebody that wants to go catch crabs,” Ezell said. “But you’re going to have to do it more efficiently than it has been done in the past. It’s going to take some innovative technology.”