Trawlers ready for ‘mighty big shrimp’

The Seahorse passes the pier at Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park during the Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival in April.

Shrimp season officially kicks off Wednesday, as regulators open the nearshore state waters where the most shrimp usually are found. But shrimpers might not move in too far from the three-mile state line where they have been casting nets.

“Oh, man, they’re beautiful,” Shem Creek shrimper Tommy Edwards said as his boat was pulling in more than 700 pounds Tuesday just beyond the line. “They’re big. They’re beautiful.”

That couldn’t sound better to Lowcountry crustacean lovers after a few years of poor overall catches. Sample trawls by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources before regulators opened the season suggested there were more juvenile shrimp in the water and the crop would be good. But size was a question until recent trawls.

“We have more young shrimp out there. There’s some mighty big shrimp out there,” DNR biologist Larry DeLancey said last week.

But for shrimpers themselves, the news could be better.

With smaller shrimp plentiful in Gulf of Mexico waters, processors have dropped the wholesale price they are paying. That means local shrimpers will be more dependent than ever on selling shrimp retail at the dock.

“If you catch a lot, you don’t get a lot of money for it. It’s not worth it. You’re better off just catching a little and getting good money,” Edwards said.

The catch here is too sparse and too inconsistent to draw a local processing plant, so extra shrimp here are sold wholesale to Gulf processors to supplement that catch at a cheaper rate. That’s why shrimping here is a niche industry struggling to hang on.

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.

Only two other Shem Creek boats were out shrimping Tuesday along with Edwards. That’s only half the remaining fleet at the creek.

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