Lowcountry shrimpers fight for their livelihood against cheaper, price-cheat imports - that's the industry line. The reality, though, is that Asian farm-raised competition doesn't have much to do with it.

The catch here is too sparse and too inconsistent to compete with Gulf of Mexico shrimp in the national retail market. That's why shrimping here is a niche industry struggling to hang on.

Its best chance might be in the latest boon thrown the shrimpers' way. Demand is growing for "East Coast whites," the shrimp that come out when South Carolina's waters are cooler. The product is getting a long-sought-after branding with cachet as tastier shrimp.

Demand for the whites took off this spring after gaining ground for a couple of years, said Rutledge Leland of Carolina Seafoods in McClellanville. Producers are starting to specify it on labels.

"Right now," he said, "everybody is telling me it's as good a product as they've ever handled."

That's the first bit of good news for local shrimpers in some time. But just how good a price it can fetch for a diminishing fleet of shrimpers racked by higher costs remains to be seen.

For the time being, "Nearly all the South Carolina catch likely stays in the (Carolinas) region," said James Wright of Seafood Source, an industry analyst.

The industry in South Carolina has been in slow decline for years. Shrimper after shrimper has given up the trade, driven out by uncertain annual harvests, higher costs and wholesale prices that haven't kept up. Few younger shrimpers take over.

About 400 boats are licensed in South Carolina today, about one-fourth of the peak numbers in the 1980s. Some years, far fewer even bother to cast the nets. They can barely pay for fuel, much less the maintenance to keep their boats in the water.

Now the infrastructure itself is coming apart. The sale of the iconic Magwood's Seafood on Shem Creek earlier this month follows the closing of its neighbor, Wando Shrimp Co., this year after half a century in operation. Up the coast in Georgetown, Leonard and Sons has closed its dock. The company is one of a few South Carolina small-scale processors, a business its owners are keeping in operation so far.

To compete on any kind of scale in the national retail market, large amounts of a product have to be produced consistently and processed to distribute across the country. Shrimpers here just don't bring in enough of a catch to support a large-scale processing plant - "an absolute fact," Leland said.

South Carolina's year-to-year commercial shrimp catch runs from about 1 million to 5 million pounds. That's only a tiny fragment compared with the Gulf catch. The Louisiana catch alone tends to run about 100 million pounds, according to the state's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The South Carolina catch is spotty enough that earlier this week, McClellanville shrimpers were working in Pamlico Sound in North Carolina's Outer Banks, where a freak bumper crop had been flushed from estuary rivers by rains from Hurricane Arthur.

The Gulf states are where large-scale processing plants operate that buy catch for national distribution. "We produce 'X' amount of pounds (of shrimp) every year and (processors) pay a good price for it," said John Williams, director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, an industry group representing eight states including South Carolina.

The Gulf processors buy South Carolina shrimp to supplement that already relatively plentiful catch. Only a portion of the state catch heads that way, and when it gets there it's a day or so older and tends to be somewhat smaller than the Gulf catch.

The price for local shrimp is negotiated almost dock to dock depending on factors like demand, transportation cost and relative quality. So, the Gulf processor price paid in the Lowcountry usually isn't as good as it is even in Georgia, which is closer to the processors.

That's why last year, when the Asian farm crop collapsed from disease and prices soared for shrimp from Gulf, Florida and Georgia waters, South Carolina prices didn't.

"Very little (of the South Carolina catch) leaves the state," Leland said, and much of that likely heads back to the Carolinas after processing. "It's getting tougher and tougher to find local product."

Maybe the best chance to improve Lowcountry shrimpers' fortunes would be for the various regional docks to band together, selling the total catch as one product. A Clemson University study indicated that as far back as 2005.

"They can have their own market and competitively sell whatever they produce," Williams said.

But it's easier said than done. Shrimpers for generations have had a cowboy approach to their trade, relying on their own wits and fending for themselves. That was the big obstacle to earlier attempts at branding regional shrimp, advocates in the industry said then.

"Unfortunately, the industry itself is so fragmented," Leland said. "The guys in Shem Creek are basically shrimping for local sale."

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