Might as well get used to pulling out a $10 bill to pay for fresh local shrimp because the days of $5 per pound shrimp off the boat might well be over.
The delayed opening of the spring shrimp season this year gave shrimpers only a few days before the catch started playing out - likely a consequence of cooler waters. Shrimp also have been harder to find the farther north the nets are dropped along the South Carolina coast.
Meanwhile, a lot more than an Asian farm crop disease was at play in the "historic record" market prices for the catch that shrimpers earned in Southeastern states, an industry executive said.
"Even with the Asian disease, we were still importing a huge amount of shrimp," said John Williams, Southern Shrimp Alliance director. "The price will continue to fluctuate. (But) I don't think it will go as low as it was 10 years ago."
The shrimp crop normally hits a summer lull as part of the spawning cycle between the spring and fall crop. The catch is still out there but not as abundant and will gradually fall off until the spawn reaches size, usually in August or September.
The spring season usually opens mid- to late May. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources delayed it this year into June to give more shrimp time to spawn after a slow start in cool, early spring waters. DNR occasionally delays the season to maintain the overall shrimp crop.
Shrimpers finally hit the state waters June 10 and had only a few days of good catch before the spring crop began playing out. The catch, good in southern waters toward Georgia, wasn't so good from Charleston north. Shem Creek shrimper Tommy Edwards brought back 700 pounds the first few days - a decent catch - but then the numbers dropped as moon tides and winds moved in.
"Maybe on the backside of this full moon we might get a few more days before it falls off," he said.
"There's not a whole lot in our area, and the spring catch is dropping off pretty fast," said Rutledge Leland, of Carolina Seafood in McClellanville, north of Charleston. "The farther south the boats went the better they did. But there were some here, and there were plenty to make a (spring) season."
As the season got underway along the Southeast coast, Lowcountry retail customers were surprised by seldom-seen prices of more than $10 per pound for larger local shrimp. The conventional explanation was a disease had depleted the Asian farm crop. Companies import that crop to the United States to sell as cheaper frozen product: Fewer imports drove up wild-catch prices.
But that explanation really doesn't hold much weight, Williams said. The diseased crop quickly was replaced by farm crops from other countries and the overall import numbers didn't drop significantly. Williams said he couldn't readily explain the record prices shrimpers were given this year. Better "eat local/buy local" marketing certainly might have helped.
Any number of factors including higher costs play into domestic prices, Williams and Larry DeLancey, of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said. Prices could drop again with factors such as import prices dropping far enough, or a market glut if there were a bumper Gulf of Mexico crop.
As far as $5 per pound shrimp, watching the ups and downs of prices since 1984 has taught DeLancey that anything is possible, he said.
"I don't think anyone can predict the future of the price of anything, much less shrimp," Williams said. But he doesn't see the cost getting too much lower or higher.
"I think the prices are certainly good for the fishermen, but I don't know at what point they price themselves out of the market," he said.
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