Cold harvest Winter shrimping could shut down sooner

Steve Kocsis (background, with orange gloves) gets help culling his haul of shrimp at the Carolina Seafood dock in McClellenville on Monday.

The spring white shrimp season is winding down, the catch falling off until the fall brown shrimp come into their own.

That season will end in the winter. But shrimping won’t stop, contrary to what a lot of people think. Bigger shrimp boats will head to open federal waters beyond the three-mile state limit.

And not just from South Carolina: Boats come from as far as Alabama if there’s shrimp to be caught.

That’s why a new rule is being proposed that, in the words of one shrimper, “could save us and could destroy us.”

The rule wouldn’t directly affect shrimp lovers. Little if any of the winter catch makes its way fresh to the retail market.

But shrimpers see it as one more shoal to cross to keep boats in the water, as they struggle to make a living in the declining industry that keeps fresh shrimp in Lowcountry trays.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council will hold a public hearing in Charleston in August on the proposal to streamline the process for closing federal waters during winters when prolonged cold decimates the shrimp stock, or the coming year’s crop, nearer to shore.

Two winters ago, cold spells depleted the stock so severely that regulators worried it might take years to recover.

The new rule could close the waters within a week after the state requests the closure, rather than the month or so it can take now.

The idea is to shut it down before it’s too late to save much of the stock. Waiting a month “is like locking the barn after the horse has been stolen,” said Robert Boyles, S.C. Department of Natural Resources deputy director of marine resources.

The proposed rule leaves a lot of shrimpers at a loss. They say closing the state waters each year is enough to protect the crop, and no federal rules are needed. Most shrimp stay near shore, where waters tend to be warmer.

In fact, winter shrimpers in federal waters tend to hug that invisible state line, to give them the best chance of catching shrimp, and wildlife officers routinely write tickets for violations.

“I don’t believe we’ve had a (bad) year attributed to overfishing. I don’t believe we’ve ever overfished them,” said shrimper Micah LaRoche of Cherry Point Seafood.

Despite the killing cold two years ago, warmer waters this year brought shrimp.

“We caught more roe (white) shrimp this year than I’ve seen cumulatively, and I’m 70 years old. We’re still catching them,” LaRoche said.

Shrimp seasons have tended to close themselves, said Steve Kocsis of McClellanville, the shrimper who made the save-or-destroy-us comment.

When it gets cold enough, the shrimp disappear from the nets, and shrimpers won’t pay for the gas to go out, he said.

“There’s not too much shrimp offshore when it gets that cold. I just don’t see where (federal regulators) need to get involved. It’s another bunch of red tape,” Kocsis said.

Boyles can’t dismiss those arguments, he said. But while South Carolina shrimpers know not to go out, “people can come from anywhere and everywhere. We have to protect the resource so there’s something to be fished.”

With this year’s banner winter shrimp crop, more boats were toeing that invisible state line before the spring season started than wildlife officers could remember, said Capt. Gentry Thames of DNR.

The bigger issue might just be the tangle of seasons, rules and the invisible defining lines offshore, said Rutledge Leland, owner of Carolina Seafood in McClellanville.

There’s the three-mile state waters line and “provisional waters,” a line that threads along the state line but extends farther out at some points off the coast. The state tends to open up those waters before it opens state waters.

“The provisional line, the radar line — it really gets confusing, even for shrimpers,” Leland said.

For customers looking for shrimp, it’s even more confusing.

“A lot of the guys say either open or close the season, rather than define a line three miles offshore,” Leland said.

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