MOUNT PLEASANT — Two years ago, Greg Herald and two partners decided to try to beat the odds. They bought a shrimp boat and began working from Shem Creek. They wanted to become part of the traditional Lowcountry fleet that is struggling just to hang on.
Today, the partnership has liquidated. The veteran commercial fisherman among them, Vince Shavender, has gone home to North Carolina. Herald plans to continue selling shrimp from a roadside stand — local catch if he can get it. But last year he traveled as far as North Carolina and Georgia to find enough to sell.
The third partner, who bought out the boat, didn't return phone messages asking if he is still in the shrimping business.
After one good year "the shrimp just disappeared," Herald said.
The cold weather in January decimated the crop so much "this year just does not look good," he said. "There are a lot of (shrimping) people hurting right now, I can tell you that."
Sunday marked the unofficial start to the shrimping season, heralded in with the 31st annual Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival in Mount Pleasant. The event celebrates the creek’s shrimping and fishing heritage, complete with a boat parade and a ceremonial blessing.
The boats usually start shrimping within a week or two of the event. But — yet again — their prospects for the year don't look good.
After an icy stretch of winter that made for the fifth worst die-off of fish and shellfish since the 1950s, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources might not open the heart of the shrimping grounds until June. So far, the trawl survey nets are coming back more empty than not.
"Shrimp abundances are well below the long-term average for this time of year," said Michael Kendrick, DNR assistant marine scientist.
"We have seen similar cold weather events in recent history which also led to the delayed spring opening of the commercial shrimp trawl fishery," he added. "In 2001, for example, prolonged cold winter weather delayed the opening of state waters until mid-June, one month later (than usual)."
DNR opens the grounds when the offshore waters start warming and trawl surveys pick up good numbers of shrimp. The waters have stayed cool into spring and are just now creeping toward the normal range in the high 60s to 70.
"If the water temperatures get to 70 and we're still not seeing shrimp, we're in trouble," Shem Creek shrimper Tommy Edwards said last week as he spruced up his boat for the parade.
Edwards said he doesn't expect the season to open until after the new moon in June, which would be June 13.
"I don't see anything (happening) until then," he said.
That's more hard knocks coming off a fall where the shrimp catch fell off so severely that the Save Shem Creek grassroots group launched a gofundme campaign to raise money to help local shrimpers get through the winter and make boat repairs.
Each year it gets harder for the parading shrimp boats to hide the patches.
Shrimping has been in a slow decline for years as captains have been driven off by escalating costs, uncertain annual harvests and wholesale prices that haven’t kept up. A recent-years promotion of the region's distinctly succulent catch hasn't been enough to turn the tide.
Plus new this spring: fuel prices are on the rise.
Shrimper after shrimper has given up the trade. Only a fourth of the boats operate today as did in the peak years two decades ago, and only a half-dozen or fewer do it from Shem Creek.
The catch here is too sparse and inconsistent to compete with Gulf of Mexico shrimp in the national retail market, much less the glutted, farm-raised import market.