MOUNT PLEASANT — South Carolina's shrimping season opened May 27 with some trawlers already stationed over their favorite spots overnight so they could drop their nets right when restrictions lifted at 8 a.m.
Shrimpers have been able to trawl in a narrow "provisional area" between state and federal waters since April, but the real season begins when the S.C. Department of Natural Resources opens all of state waters, which extend about 3 miles offshore.
Mel Bell, director of the Office of Fisheries Management at DNR, said that a mild winter and promising results from the state's sampling of the shrimp population made it an ideal time to open the season. State regulators want to make sure that female white shrimp have spawned at least once before allowing the catch to start, and late May is a typical time for them to make that call.
"We had really good overwintering shrimp numbers," Bell said. "Over the past several years we've seen a lot of larger shrimp offshore that are probably coming down from up north, just because of the range expansion of (white) shrimp."
There's hope that this season will see a comeback for the industry that sells these shrimp, in part because measures to combat coronavirus in 2020 severely restricted restaurant dining and dampened demand for local product.
Last year, Cindy Tarvin of Tarvin Seafood, based on Shem Creek, told The Post and Courier that restaurant orders had dropped to between one-quarter and one-third of normal. This year, she said, sales have bounced back dramatically as diners have rushed back to restaurants.
"One of the restaurants said its like July Fourth every day," she said. "We’re really happy for them, and we’re happy for increased sales to restaurants."
Tarvin Seafood trawls with two boats, the Miss Paula and the Carolina Breeze. The catch in provisional areas so far had been spotty, Tarvin said, but she said "we're all hoping for a good day" to open state waters for 2021.
There was one mishap on the opening day, however — Charleston Police Harbor Patrol had to rescue three individuals from one boat that capsized near Morris Island. The Coast Guard will investigate the incident, CPD tweeted. No injuries were reported.
There are many fewer shrimpers today than in past decades. Globally, shellfish farms abroad have undercut South Carolina's industry on price. The soaring value of coastal land has additionally made it harder to maintain longtime working waterfronts where shrimp boats dock.
South Carolina also tightly controls when trawling is allowed so that the population can bounce back in off years. Cold winters can severely injure the shrimp population, as in 2018, when a wintertime freeze sent shrimp counts plummeting and waters weren't opened until the later part of June.
Shrimpers are not allowed to trawl in the state's inshore estuaries, where the shellfish reproduce. Many factors can also disrupt the delicate balance of salty and fresh water shrimp prefer in the marshes where they spawn, like a hurricane dumping fresh water, or a drought making the environment more saline, Bell said.