Shrimping’s odd alliance

Shrimper Tommy Cannon pulls a bag of fresh shrimp out of a cooler for customer Todd DuPree on Friday at a lot on Mill Street and Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant.

Of all the things pushing shrimpers out of the business — uncertain hauls, rising costs, competition for dock and market space — the last one you’d expect is a good catch.

This season’s catch has at least a half-dozen boats selling some of it from a parking lot off their traditional Shem Creek stomping ground. That’s because the spring shrimp are coming in so plentiful and big, these shrimpers have nowhere else to sell it all. The few shrimpers left with their own dock space don’t need more shrimp. Neither do their business customers. Neither do the wholesalers.

But this is not just any parking lot. Its owner plans an office building and parking garage that are opposed by many residents and an organization trying to rein in commercial development along the creek, saying they want to preserve its shrimping heritage.

But for the shrimpers, out-of-town processors are so glutted they are not buying or have dropped the price they will pay so low that local shrimpers wouldn’t recoup their costs. They are more dependent than ever on selling retail at the dock. And there just isn’t much dock left.

Wando Shrimp Co. has closed. Simmons Marina and the Geechie dock have plenty of their own catch. The town of Mount Pleasant dock across the river requires insurance many of the shrimpers can’t afford.

Shrimp boat owner Tommy Cannon shrugged and shook his head when asked about selling from the opposed development site. He had 120 pounds of shrimp to move in 5-pound bags, heads-on or heads-off for $30 and $50, respectively, about the going rate. With his truck backed right up to Coleman Boulevard and a sign out advertising the catch, people were pointing as they drove by and pulling in one after the other.

“Progress is going to happen. We need a market,” he said. “When (the creek retail market) is gone, it’s all gone. We’re trying. We’re trying.”

Cindy Tarvin of Tarvin Seafood asked Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page for help finding space along the creek, and Page contacted Robert “Tex” Small of AVTEX Commercial Properties. Small is working through permitting to build the office and parking garage in the lot just off the Coleman Boulevard bridge.

The group Save Shem Creek is battling those permits.

Small agreed to let the shrimpers use the lot for free until he starts to build, and maybe continue the arrangement if it works out.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with (the permit fight),” Small said. “The only ways they can get rid of shrimp now is to sell retail, out of the back of a truck, or sell wholesale where they wouldn’t get enough money to pay for gas.”

Tarvin said she stepped up her effort to sell retail to go along with restaurant, online and community share sales.

“Because we don’t have dock space, we’re trying to find other options. When everybody catches, the (wholesale) fish houses get full, nobody can move shrimp. The (shrimp) industry here is not so big that we shouldn’t be able to move our catch locally,” she said.

“This is not just the parking garage property that everybody is opposed to, but something that can be helpful,” she said.

The Shem Creek shrimping community once was an emblem of the Lowcountry, the boats tying off three or more abreast with their nets hanging like furled wings.

But the creek today has become a mix of upscale residences, waterfront restaurants and water sports businesses. It’s lined with power boats, kayaks, paddleboards and fewer and fewer of the shrimp boats that made it a destination.

Meanwhile, shrimper after shrimper has given up the trade, unable to get by. The remaining captains and their boats are as weathered as the patchwork hulls. They are turning to niche markets to survive.

Guilds Hollowell, 80, is a Mount Pleasant native who has been buying shrimp off the docks all his life. When he saw Cannon’s truck and sign out on the streets, it didn’t surprise him. He pulled in to buy there. Oh, yeah, he nodded, the creek has changed.

“I mean, they don’t have a dock to sell it from anymore,” he said. A shrimper he had been buying from for 50 years gave up the business last year, he said. “He got to the point where he couldn’t make a living.”

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