Shrimp outlook spotty

The outlook so far on the prized fall shrimp crop: Spotty. Not great in either size or quantity. Blame the heavy summer rains.

“If people get in the right place they’ll catch them,” said biologist Larry DeLancey. “We just need it not to rain anymore.”

That’s not heartening news for shrimpers, seafood diners or recreational shrimpers, whose season starts Sept. 13. The fall browns tend to be the most sought-after crop of the year. They normally arrive en masse in late August and September. Local shrimpers said last week they already were showing up.

Rainfalls flush shrimp from their river nurseries into the saltier estuaries and near the ocean, where they grow and are caught.

Wildlife biologists suspect this year’s heavy rains did the job too well. During S.C. Department of Natural Resources sample trawl in the estuaries last week, nets pulled in smaller shrimp that in recent drought years would have been found 20 miles farther upstream.

“The Edisto River (freshwater) drainage is seriously flushed down to the ocean,” DeLancey said.

Lowcountry shrimpers just got the break they were waiting for: The price has gone through the roof for the once-cheaper Asian frozen shrimp that have undercut their market.

So far, though, it hasn’t made much difference.

A disease has depleted the Asian crop, causing a shortage that is driving up the price. In other places in the Southeast, the shortage has driven up the “boat” price of domestic shrimp — or the packing-house price — that processors pay. A Georgia shrimp producer called it the best in years.

But not here. Lowcountry shrimpers aren’t seeing much, if any, of that price jump.

Georgia shrimpers are getting about $6 per pound for packing-house shrimp, depending on size, said Speedy Tostensen, of Poteet Seafood in Brunswick, Ga., last week. He had just talked to a Texas shrimper getting $9 per pound for larger shrimp.

At Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, shrimper Tommy Edwards said he was getting somewhere between $2 and $4.50 per pound. That’s pretty much what the local boats have gotten for years.

What’s happening?

“Whoever their buyers are aren’t giving them the price,” Tostensen said. “I’m telling you, the shrimp (price) is higher than it’s been in years.”

It comes back to the same trifecta of trouble for local shrimpers it always seems to:

Absence of a local “value-added” processing plant.

Lack of competition for the product.

Limited business assets to ship the product far enough to get that competitive price.

Prices have been stagnant since the late 1990s, while costs have risen for everything from fuel to repairs. It’s helped cripple a once-vibrant industry. Edwards and others know it.

“Until we start being the squeaky wheel, until we get the processors to come up on the prices, (the import price rise) is not going to make any difference,” he said.

Johnny Roundtree, of Leonard and Sons in Georgetown, one of the main “processor” buyers for Lowcountry shrimpers, won’t discuss the price he pays, he said.

“The price is up on a five-year high,” he said. “But there’s no shrimp.”

And there have been few shrimp out there. After a decent spring roe crop, the brown “summer” shrimp came in smaller and fewer. Richie Billington, a McClellanville shrimper, trawled four hours one day last week and brought back 9 quarts, he said.

With the prices that shrimpers have been getting, it takes a few hundred pounds just to pay the fuel bill. A lot of boats went to North Carolina looking for a better summer crop.

The brown shrimp crop wasn’t good in Georgia either, Tostensen said.

Lowcountry shrimpers hope the fall shrimp arrive in enough size and quantity to force up the price, given the reduced overseas crop and spiked food-industry demand.

“I’m real anxious to know what they are going to offer us when the shrimp do come in,” said Rutledge Leland, of Carolina Seafoods in McClellanville.

“We’ve got the rain (that moves shrimp into the estuary). We’ve got good shrimp in the creek,” Edwards said. “If the price went up only 50 cents per pound, that would be really good. It doesn’t take much to really help us.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.