LOWCOUNTRY SHRIMPING

ABOARD THE MISS PAULA - The fleet is mostly gone.

It's just past 5 a.m. when Vasa Tarvin chugs out of Shem Creek, one shrimp boat in his wake, three or four others already offshore.

Back in the day, 50 or 60 shrimp boats called this creek home, but this is all that's left. Among the half-dozen shrimpers who leave here before sunrise every day, Tarvin is a rarity - a young captain.

He's only 23, but he's had the Miss Paula for three years. Tarvin's been shrimping more than a decade, since the day he took a school field trip aboard Wayne Magwood's Winds of Fortune.

He begged Magwood - probably the dean of the Shem Creek fleet - to let him work on the boat on weekends. Those Saturdays turned to summers, and summers turned to full-time. Then, thanks to Magwood, Tarvin found the Miss Paula - and paid less for her than most people spend on new outboards.

There's not much demand for shrimp boats anymore.

It's the same old story: expenses are rising, profits are not. These days it's definitely more fashionable to get out of the industry than hang on. But Tarvin cast his lot - and his nets - with shrimping, and he's not giving up.

He goes out six or seven days every week.

A man of few words, Tarvin succinctly sums up the shrimp business this time of year.

"Slow," he says.

On this morning, Tarvin's mentor is also his crew.

Wayne Magwood has sent his brother, Scotty, out with Winds of Fortune, while he helps Tarvin, who could use a boost. And, truthfully, work is work.

Magwood has been spending winters in Florida, Texas - doing dredge work, whatever he can find. Anymore shrimpers have to diversify to survive. Magwood takes his boat on harbor cruises, hosts shag parties, wedding receptions. He's even had a funeral or two onboard.

But shrimping is his lifeblood. Magwood is 61 and seems like a character from "The Prince of Tides" come to life. He's been aboard boats like this all his life. His daddy, a legendary Shem Creek shrimper, had him and his brothers mending nets when they were 10.

Such talents are handy among shrimpers these days. It costs too much to pay anyone else. The nets, after all, cost about $1,000 each. And one snag can rip one wide open. You not only lose a net, but the day's catch.

"Every day is a gamble," Magwood says.

There aren't many people left who will take the risk.

The Miss Paula's nets are in the water off Sullivan's Island by 6:15.

Magwood sits in the pilot's chair and steers with his foot, chatting with his brother over the CB.

"They got 95 pounds in the first net, 150 in the second," he reports.

Not bad, but nothing to write home about.

Shrimp boats drop their nets and drag them along the bottom at about 2 knots. They might go two, three or even fours hours before hauling them up. Three miles off Sullivan's, the nets don't drop far. In some places the water is only 6 or 7 feet deep. It's easier shrimping, but they do it here because fuel is too expensive to go out farther.

Magwood watches a computer screen that shows hazards on the bottom - a list the shrimpers keep and share with each other. The industry used to be highly competitive. Now, well, it feels like they are all in this together.

They've seen shrimp farms and overseas markets keep prices low. They still get only about $2.50 a pound wholesale for medium-size shrimp, maybe $5 per pound for the big ones.

But fuel now costs $3.50 a gallon, and they can burn 100 gallons a day.

After two hours, Tarvin and Magwood haul in the nets while a half-dozen dolphins and a hundred birds wait patiently for them to discard their by-catch.

The final tally for the first drag is about 150 pounds of shrimp, mostly mediums. Magwood declares it OK.

For the second run, Magwood persuades Tarvin to venture into the shipping channel. Not many shrimpers drop nets there because of the constant danger of dodging container ships.

"This is my favorite spot," Magwood says. "I've made my living here."

As he steers, Magwood remembers his best haul: opening day about 10 years ago. That day the Winds of Fortune took 10,000 pounds of shrimp in 13 hours - a $30,000 day.

It was glorious, but it's far from the norm.

"Then there are days when I get four, just like Forrest Gump," Magwood says.

Less than an hour into the run, Miss Paula is caught between inbound and outbound container ships. Tarvin and Magwood raise the nets and get out of the way, dropping them again when the channel is clear. Just another delay.

The time passes slowly at 2 miles an hour. The radio blasts country music across the deck, while Tarvin puffs on a cigarette at the stern. At least today there's a good breeze.

The life of shrimpers has been romanticized, probably because the view is incredible.

But truth is, it's hard work. It's monotonous, it's back-breaking and it's a risky way to earn a living. As Tarvin is learning all too well.

When they pull up the nets a second time, they find barely 100 pounds of shrimp.

Tarvin is discouraged, especially when Magwood reports that one of the other boats has already taken 1,000 pounds. It's just 11 a.m., but Tarvin decides to head back.

"I would have stayed for another run, but he's the captain," Magwood says.

Tarvin says Magwood wore him out the day before, so he's ready to knock off with 240 pounds of shrimp. The day before they took 700 pounds, and much of it has to be delivered to local restaurants before he can quit.

The ride inside is quick, and Miss Paula hits Shem Creek about noon. Tarvin immediately has to throttle back. The creek is choked with kayakers - quite literally tourism in the way of commerce.

Tarvin is not a fan of the kayaks or paddleboards, but there's little he can do.

Times change.

Magwood says when his family launched the Skipper Wayne in Shem Creek in 1956, half of Mount Pleasant turned out. Now it seems like they are here every day, a hostile takeover of a creek that used to be home to an entire industry.

At the Geechie Seafood dock, Tarvin ties up alongside another shrimp boat and hauls his take to the dock. Magwood says his good-byes once the shrimp are ashore. Even though he's been working on Miss Paula for eight hours, Magwood says he's going to get his little boat and, believe it or not, go fishing.

That's Magwood - the last of the breed. He has saltwater in his veins and, no matter what happens, he believes a bad day on the water beats a good day most anywhere else.

Magwood is a survivor, but unfortunately the jury's still out on his profession.

Lowcountry shrimpers fight for their livelihood against cheaper, price-cheat imports - that's the industry line. The reality, though, is that Asian farm-raised competition doesn't have much to do with it.

The catch here is too sparse and too inconsistent to compete with Gulf of Mexico shrimp in the national retail market. That's why shrimping here is a niche industry struggling to hang on.

Its best chance might be in the latest boon thrown the shrimpers' way. Demand is growing for "East Coast whites," the shrimp that come out when South Carolina's waters are cooler. The product is getting a long-sought-after branding with cachet as tastier shrimp.

Demand for the whites took off this spring after gaining ground for a couple of years, said Rutledge Leland of Carolina Seafoods in McClellanville. Producers are starting to specify it on labels.

"Right now," he said, "everybody is telling me it's as good a product as they've ever handled."

That's the first bit of good news for local shrimpers in some time. But just how good a price it can fetch for a diminishing fleet of shrimpers racked by higher costs remains to be seen.

For the time being, "Nearly all the South Carolina catch likely stays in the (Carolinas) region," said James Wright of Seafood Source, an industry analyst.

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.

Now the infrastructure itself is coming apart. The sale of the iconic Magwood's Seafood on Shem Creek earlier this month follows the closing of its neighbor, Wando Shrimp Co., this year after half a century in operation. Up the coast in Georgetown, Leonard and Sons has closed its dock. The company is one of a few South Carolina small-scale processors, a business its owners are keeping in operation so far.

To compete on any kind of scale in the national retail market, large amounts of a product have to be produced consistently and processed to distribute across the country. Shrimpers here just don't bring in enough of a catch to support a large-scale processing plant - "an absolute fact," Leland said.

South Carolina's year-to-year commercial shrimp catch runs from about 1 million to 5 million pounds. That's only a tiny fragment compared with the Gulf catch. The Louisiana catch alone tends to run about 100 million pounds, according to the state's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The South Carolina catch is spotty enough that earlier this week, McClellanville shrimpers were working in Pamlico Sound in North Carolina's Outer Banks, where a freak bumper crop had been flushed from estuary rivers by rains from Hurricane Arthur.

The Gulf states are where large-scale processing plants operate that buy catch for national distribution. "We produce 'X' amount of pounds (of shrimp) every year and (processors) pay a good price for it," said John Williams, director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, an industry group representing eight states including South Carolina.

The Gulf processors buy South Carolina shrimp to supplement that already relatively plentiful catch. Only a portion of the state catch heads that way, and when it gets there it's a day or so older and tends to be somewhat smaller than the Gulf catch.

The price for local shrimp is negotiated almost dock to dock depending on factors like demand, transportation cost and relative quality. So, the Gulf processor price paid in the Lowcountry usually isn't as good as it is even in Georgia, which is closer to the processors.

That's why last year, when the Asian farm crop collapsed from disease and prices soared for shrimp from Gulf, Florida and Georgia waters, South Carolina prices didn't.

"Very little (of the South Carolina catch) leaves the state," Leland said, and much of that likely heads back to the Carolinas after processing. "It's getting tougher and tougher to find local product."

Maybe the best chance to improve Lowcountry shrimpers' fortunes would be for the various regional docks to band together, selling the total catch as one product. A Clemson University study indicated that as far back as 2005.

"They can have their own market and competitively sell whatever they produce," Williams said.

But it's easier said than done. Shrimpers for generations have had a cowboy approach to their trade, relying on their own wits and fending for themselves. That was the big obstacle to earlier attempts at branding regional shrimp, advocates in the industry said then.

"Unfortunately, the industry itself is so fragmented," Leland said. "The guys in Shem Creek are basically shrimping for local sale."