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Shrimp boats line the banks of Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant. The season opens Wednesday. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The fresh shrimp of the coast will be back on the plate, and soon. Commercial netting opens Wednesday  — two months earlier than last year.

It's a welcome change after the brutal winter in 2018 halted any commercial shrimping until late June.

The relatively early opening had been expected after this year's warmer winter. Shrimper Tommy Edwards, who works out of Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, predicted in February the S.C. Department of Natural Resources would open the "provisional," or outer, waters by the first full moon in April.

DNR came close to obliging. The full moon is Friday.  

"It's looking promising this year because it's not July," Edwards said. "I don't think we'll see a lot of shrimp at first but at least we can get to work."

DNR trawls are reporting average to better-than-average numbers of shrimp, and shrimpers working the unrestricted federal waters farther out are coming back with "nice size, harvestable shrimp," said Mell Bell, DNR fisheries management director.

"It’s obviously too early to discuss when all of our state waters might open to trawling this year but the opening of the provisional areas on the 24th allows at least some harvest to begin now to get locally caught product into the market," Bell said.

The "provisional" waters, roughly 2 miles out, usually are sparser than the rich nearshore shrimping grounds where boats drop their nets in sight of land. Those richer grounds tend to open in May when waters are warmer and the crustaceans have spawned for the fall crop.

The federal waters, beyond 3 miles, stayed open over the winter.

The fierce cold snap of snow and ice in January 2018 made for the fifth worst die-off of shrimp and other species since the 1950s. A late spring start last year was followed by a poor summer. A good fall catch barely made up for what could have been another scraping-the-bottom year, according to officials and shrimpers.

The catch here is prized for its taste and texture, but it's not enough and too inconsistent to compete with Gulf of Mexico shrimp in the national retail market, much less the glutted, farm-raised import market. South Carolina shrimpers make most of their living selling fresh off the boat.

The local fleet continues to barely hang in there. Most of the captains now hold off-season jobs to get by.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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

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