When Tommy Edwards first started shrimping 40 years ago, Shem Creek was glorious.

Back then, there were 80 or 90 trawlers lining the docks, a parade of shrimping boats that stretched from Coleman Boulevard all the way to the harbor.

That fleet supplied the Lowcountry with its lifeblood - fresh fish and tons upon tons of shrimp. Locals bought seafood right off the dock from places like Magwood's and Wando Shrimp Company.

Mount Pleasant's fishing village was living history, maintaining a heritage that went back centuries, and Edwards fell in love.

And now, all of it is just about gone.

These days there are only a half-dozen or so shrimp boats sailing out of Shem Creek; one of the last remaining ones sank in December and Wando Shrimp Company is closing after 65 years in business. Lisa and Chuck Sigman have decided to retire and their market will be shuttered within weeks. Magwood's is hanging on, for now. But it's not easy.

It's a changing world in Mount Pleasant. Today the Shem Creek docks are lined with pleasure boats piloted by locals who sail in to eat and drink at the waterfront bars.

"If we don't do something, we're gone," Edwards says.

And that would be a crime.

A perfect storm

Shrimping has always been a fickle business.

There are good years and bad, which comes with living off the environment. But these days practitioners of the art are being squeezed from every side. Shrimpers complain about regulations that limit where they can work, and when.

Black gill disease, which sometimes afflicts the shrimp in summer months, means they have to head their shrimp before they can sell them. That's more work, less profit.

Then there are people out deep-holing, dropping nets into the places shrimp hide, culling the number that would otherwise end up in commercial fishing nets. It's illegal, but it's hard to prosecute these folks.

And then there are overseas shrimp farms, which are selling stock to local restaurants as fast as they ship it.

The weather often conspires against them, as well. Larry DeLancey, supervisor of the Department of Natural Resource's Crustacean Monitoring Program, says the cold winter could mean less shrimp this season. Of course, heavy rains hurt the season - just as drought does.

"There is a conspiracy of things going against them that aren't anyone's fault," DeLancey says.

All of these things have helped decimate the shrimp industry. It's getting too hard, there is too little profit, to keep the fleet afloat.

Edwards is one of the last men standing on the Shem Creek docks, and it's not easy. There aren't enough hours in the day for a working man to make his catch, then shuttle it around to restaurants and fish markets. He needs a whole crew, but who has the money for that?

Edwards isn't giving up, but he is studying accounting.

Like most shrimpers, he needs an insurance plan.

A little support

A few years ago, the nonprofit Shem Creek Fisheries was set up to promote the fleet and help the shrimpers.

It has paid some bills for struggling captains and is doing its best to promote the local seafood industry. The town of Mount Pleasant has offered to help, but so far the fleet has seen nothing from the annual Blessing of the Fleet except for $500 for each boat that participates.

That just about pays the cost of their fuel for the event.

Councilman Elton Carrier believes the town should do more to save the industry, and he's absolutely right. He's trying, and the rest of council should heed his word.

And they need to hurry.

In 1974, when Edwards cast his first professional net, Shem Creek was alive with an industry that is emblematic of the South Carolina coast. And it's vanishing. The shrimp industry deserves to be saved as much as any historic building.

But if this keeps up, Shem Creek will become nothing more than a collection of neon and parks that draw tourists in to look at creek filled with nothing but a few kayakers.

Then Edwards will be relegated to selling his shrimp out of coolers on the side of the road, and a once-proud way of life will exist nowhere except in Pat Conroy novels.

And that's just sad. These folks are the real princes of the tides, and this is no way to treat royalty.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com