Mix the cocktail sauce, fresh shrimp are in

Fresh shrimp were plentiful in the spring of 2015 and early catches look good this year.

Fresh shrimp are waiting at the docks.

The waters 3 miles out opened this 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.

Meanwhile, the shrimp “are beautiful. They’re big, 6-10 count (per pound) with heads on,” said Pam Rector of Geechee Seafood in Mount Pleasant. Pounds are going for $6 heads-on, $10 heads-off at the dock, she said.

The waters are warmer this spring and sample catches suggested the crop would be abundant. Bottom temperatures never dropped below a level that would cause concern about a “cold kill” of overwintering shrimp, said Jeff Brunson, S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.

The nearer shore waters opening date will depend on when and how actively the shrimp start spawning, he said. “We need to be confident that enough of the roe shrimp crop has spawned” to ensure the summer and fall crop.

Last year, the spring shrimp crop was a record catch at the McClellanville docks, and the crustaceans were so plentiful at the Shem Creek docks in Mount Pleasant it turned into a problem for some shrimpers. At least a half-dozen boats were forced to sell some catch from a parking lot because the extra shrimp just weren’t needed by their business and wholesale customers, or at the few docks where shrimp are sold.

In the Lowcountry, shrimping is a niche business struggling to hang on; it 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.

Only a fourth of the boats operate today as did in the peak years two decades ago, and only a half-dozen or fewer are from Shem Creek.

The catch here is too sparse and inconsistent to compete with Gulf of Mexico shrimp in the national retail market. Any number of Charleston-area restaurants don’t buy locally caught shrimp, partly because of the same supply difficulties. So local shrimpers are left to make most of their money from dock sales.

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