MOUNT PLEASANT - Tommy Edwards fought Tuesday to patch his shrimp boat, while worrying about how he was going to pay to repair it. He just couldn't stop the leak.
He might as well have been trying to patch up the foundering fleet.
The Mrs. Judy Too is among the last of the shrimp boats that have been a Shem Creek mainstay and a Lowcountry emblem for decades. And it's been a bad winter so far after a run of bad years. Two months ago, Rocky Magwood's Lady Eva sank at dock on the creek not far away.
The Wando Shrimp Co. at the creek mouth is shutting down after more than a half century.
More than a livelihood, this is a way of life slipping away in front of our eyes.
Only a half-dozen boats remain tied along piers where once nearly 100 were tied rail to rail. Last year's fall catch was down 30 to 40 percent because of heavy flushing rains, said Larry DeLancey, of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
After a good start in 2012, the total catch was only about half of what it had been the year before. 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.
The captains and their boats are aging out. Shrimper after shrimper is giving up the trade, driven out by catch difficulties, higher costs and wholesale prices that haven't kept up. Few younger shrimpers take over. About 400 boats are licensed in South Carolina today, a fourth of the number at the industry's peak in the 1980s.
Some years, far fewer than that number even bother to cast the nets. They can barely pay for fuel, much less maintenance to keep their boats in the water.
The Mrs. Judy Too is 35 years old, a 70-footer with a wood-paneled pilot house and galley, heated by space heaters.
"The plank gave out all at one time," Edwards said. "We've got to get the hull out (of the water) to fix it. I should have done it quicker. I didn't have the money to do it."
Edwards, 54, has a set face and a steady, businesslike demeanor, but this is more than a job to him. In recent years, he's been eking out a living selling directly to customers off the dock, where he gets a better price than wholesale. Interviewed on the last day of the season two years ago, he conceded that there's not much thrill for him anymore, except when a net pulls up bulging with shrimp. The job used to be fun, he said.
But like a lot of lifelong shrimpers, he can't imagine doing anything besides setting out the sprawling nets. He began working the Shem Creek docks during the 1970s, as a 14-year-old on weekends. When shrimp season ends, he's crabbing or fishing.
"I've got to go (back out for the spring shrimp season). This is my life. This is the only thing I've ever done," he said.
Authorities were notified shortly after midnight Tuesday that the Mrs. Judy Too was sinking, according to Charleston County dispatchers. The Coast Guard, Mount Pleasant firefighters and North Charleston's marine patrol responded to the vessel.
About noon, just as the crew had the leak slowed down and were working on the engine, it sprang again. A diver finally got enough of it patched to allow the pumps to keep up with the leak.
Edwards left the boat to find a starter to get the engine going, to keep the salt water from ruining it. He was confident he could keep the boat from sinking, he said.
He estimated the boat will cost $5,000 to $7,000 to fix, "done right." He appealed for contributions to the nonprofit Shem Creek Fisheries for help.
"It's a shame I have got to beg, but we've just had some bad years back to back," he said.
Christina Elmore contributed to this report.