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South Carolina shrimping waters are expected to open this week. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The federal waters at least 3 miles offshore South Carolina could open for commercial shrimping as soon as Wednesday — the waited-for start of a season delayed by the winter cold.

The season is already nearly a month behind its average opening date.

After the latest round of sample netting appeared favorable, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources asked to open the federal waters to commercial trawling, Mel Bell, DNR fisheries management director, said Monday.

The request is largely a formality, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to order the waters opened this week after notifying shrimpers who hold federal licenses.

"I suspect it could be as early as Wednesday," Bell said.

The federal waters are beyond 3 miles. The next waters to open will be the state's "provisional" waters roughly beyond 2 miles from shore.

The nearshore waters — the heart of the shrimping grounds — will open last. DNR tends to open the three areas one by one, to give shrimpers at working waters out of state time to get back and prep to compete.

Overall, the numbers of shrimp are still down and the size smaller than normal, but spawning is taking place, Bell said. State waters will remain closed for a bit longer to allow more spawning there.

An icy stretch of winter earlier this year made for the fifth worst die-off of fish and shellfish since the 1950s. A cool spring delayed the waters warming and shrimp spawning. The truncated spring season, though, usually turns into a good fall catch.

Right now, the fresh shrimp turning up at Charleston area seafood markets and stands is coming from waters off the Georgia-Florida line. The retail price for large shrimp at one market last weekend was $18 per pound — about double what it would be expected if the catch here were abundant.

The local catch is prized among shellfish eaters for its freshness and succulence.

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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