Chasing a dream against the tide

Vince Shavender is a North Carolina native who ended up in Alaska fishing and is now in the Lowcountry looking to buy a shrimp boat.

MOUNT PLEASANT — Vince Shavender wants to buy a shrimp boat. That makes him one unusual Lowcountry entrepreneur.

There isn’t much new blood in the trade. Shrimping is a niche business here, struggling to hang on. Shrimper after shrimper has given up the trade. Only a fourth of the boats operate today as did in the peak years two decades ago, and only a half-dozen or fewer do it from Shem Creek.

That’s where Shavender wants to run the business.

The 29th annual Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival, the unofficial start to the shrimping season, takes place this weekend. Each year it seems there are fewer of those patched-up boats for the shrimpers left to paint for the show.

The fest celebrates the creek’s shrimping and fishing heritage with a boat parade, live music, a craft show and lots of fresh seafood. It takes place 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Waterfront Park under the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

It’s scheduled to be held about the time or shortly before the spring season opens. This year, the waters 3 miles out opened last week, a little earlier than usual. The nearer-to-shore heart of the shrimping grounds could open early, too. Those waters tend to open in mid- to late-May and opened on May 27 in 2015.

Succulent fresh shrimp, in other words, is for sale at the docks. The early word is they are big.

Get them while you can. The iconic Shem Creek shrimping vista — the lines of boats with their drawn nets, an image that became an emblem of the Lowcountry — is vanishing. The creek today is tightly packed with restaurants, residences and private docks, and heavily used by recreational boaters. The shrimp docks stand on waterfront properties worth far more than the boats bring in.

Shrimping has been in slow decline for years, its captains driven off by escalating costs, uncertain annual harvests and wholesale prices that haven’t kept up.

The catch here is too sparse and inconsistent to compete with Gulf of Mexico shrimp in the national retail market, much less the glutted, farm-raised import market. Any number of Charleston area restaurants don’t buy locally caught shrimp, partly because of the same supply difficulties. Don’t let advertising fool you. Ask if it’s local and ask from whom.

Shem Creek shrimpers are left to make much of their money from dock sales.

Does that daunt Shavender? It keeps him awake at night, he said. Then he takes his morning coffee down to the Shem Creek shrimp docks, watches the bustle and says to himself, “I love this. I cut my teeth doing this and I had such a good time.”

Shavender isn’t young blood. He’s 52 now, with a shock of gray hair, a gray gristle of beard and a grinning earnestness that belie them. Born in eastern North Carolina, he went to work on the boats there as a teen, when a friend dropped by driving a 4-year-old Corvette and told him that he’d made enough to buy it by shrimping for the last month.

Shavender moved to Kodiak, Alaska, in his early 20s when he heard how many thousands of dollars you could make there working a few months per year on a fishing boat.

“It was a little bit of the Wild West in those days. It was fun for a 20-year-old guy,” he said. He made his way to the wheel as captain and appeared in 2004 and 2005 on television’s “The Deadliest Catch,” including a talked-about episode in which a crewman is lost overboard and then rescued.

After Shavender turned 50, he returned home to North Carolina. He was sorting around for a job he actually wanted to work when an old friend, Greg Herald, contacted him on Facebook from Mount Pleasant.

Herald, also 52, a construction supervisor, used to make extra cash buying shrimp at the Shem Creek docks and taking it down to the Isle of Palms connector to sell. The life at the docks is the heart of Mount Pleasant to him. He told Shavender to come on down.

“I want to keep shrimping in Shem Creek,” Herald said. “If you can keep one boat and make some money doing it ...” He shrugs and throws out his arms instead of finishing the thought. Shavender spends time on the Geechee Seafood and other docks along the creek, crewing for free and learning what he can.

The two are partnering in the effort, with Herald handling the business end. The idea is to market fresh local shrimp in the region along with other seafood brought in from Shavender’s fishing contacts on the West Coast, a multiproduct approach that other seafood businesses in the Lowcountry are turning to.

The two partners know the odds. They have a fallback plan: shrimping tours, taking tourists out for a their own taste of the life.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.