MOUNT PLEASANT -- From the bridge of his 75-foot trawler, Capt. Wayne Magwood looked grimly at the sea and wondered if he will catch enough shrimp to pay the bills this year.
Last winter's unusually cold weather delayed the start of the commercial shrimping season -- a decision that cost Magwood thousands of dollars.
And now, Magwood fears that oil spilling in the Gulf of Mexico could squeeze the only business he's ever known.
"I'm worried about it, sure," the 58-year-old Magwood said as he guided his boat, the Winds of Fortune, off Mount Pleasant last week. "There is a lot more pressure on us this year."
It's a common concern for South Carolina shrimpers.
While oil hasn't spread to the East Coast, the threat of it reaching South Carolina can't be dismissed, shrimpers say.
If BP's oil slick hits the Gulf Stream, moves up the East Coast and spreads inland, it could mean the closure of popular fishing grounds off Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head Island, McClellanville and Georgetown.
"We are really, really concerned this is going to put us out of business," said Gordon McNeil, a roadside shrimp vendor at Pawleys Island. "About half the time, my customers ask if the oil is going to affect us.' "
Recent government data show no signs the Gulf oil mass has reached the Gulf Stream. Some experts say chances that it would reach South Carolina are no greater than 20 percent.
But even if the oil stays in the Gulf of Mexico, it still could affect South Carolina, some say.
Shrimpers fear that big boats from the Gulf of Mexico could move into Carolina waters and compete for an already limited resource. About one-third of the federally controlled fishing grounds in the Gulf already are closed because of the spill, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We feel bad for these guys down there dealing with it in the Gulf," said John Moseley, who works the docks at Magwood Seafood, where the catch is stored on ice, bagged and sold to the public. "But there's not enough shrimp to go around as it is, and these guys are going to come up here and try to make a living."
So far, nothing like that has happened.
Some Gulf shrimpers have stayed home and been paid to help with the cleanup, said Mel Bell, who heads the fisheries office for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. But Bell said DNR won't know for several weeks if new competition comes in. Anyone who wants a new permit to shrimp commercially in South Carolina will likely apply before July 1, when new permits take effect, he said.
The good news for Magwood and others -- at least now -- is that shrimp prices are up because of the limited supply this year. And they may continue to rise if the oil spill closes more fishing grounds in the Gulf.
Magwood said he's selling shrimp for about $2 more per pound this summer because supplies are limited.
The winter cold killed many shrimp. That delayed the start of the season by several weeks, so remaining shrimp populations would have time to recover. Even so, the shrimp population this year could be down more than 50 percent, according to early estimates.
Seafood industry representatives say concerns about oil are valid.
Any oil that might drift up the Gulf Stream first would affect the long-line fishing industry, which is in deeper water near the stream. That industry hauls in swordfish, mahi mahi and other larger fish.
If a storm pushed oil out of the Gulf Stream and into waters closer to shore, the contamination would then affect grouper and eventually shrimp, said Frank Blum, executive director of the S.C. Seafood Alliance.
Researchers at the University of South Carolina doubt the oil would be as toxic if it reaches the Palmetto State as it now is in the Gulf. Sunlight and bacteria would have degraded much of the oil on its long journey, said Jim Morris, director of USC's Baruch Institute marine center near Georgetown.
Although that might not kill marine life, Morris said it could affect species in other ways, such as with reproduction.
Craig Reaves of the S.C. Shrimpers Association said he's most frustrated that the Gulf oil spill has continued since mid-April.
Unless it can be stopped, he's reasonably sure the oil will hit the Gulf Stream and move toward South Carolina. Even if it never comes ashore from the Gulf Stream, the state could be tainted by publicity that would cause people to shy away from South Carolina seafood, he said.
"When you get oil off our coast, people get afraid of the seafood,'' he said. "It's a public perception."