Shrimpers cast off, hang on

Crewman Cole Signor, who has been shrimping for decades, loads up the Anna Grace at the docks in Mount Pleasant in preparation for another shrimping season out of Shem Creek. A rich shrimp crop is expected this year against a backdrop of hard economic tim

Capt. Lance Rector loaded one more can of motor oil onboard with the eight cartons already waiting to go below deck. His crewman Cole Signor brought aboard a few cases of Pepsi, 7-Up, root beer. They were ready to go on Wednesday. They had been ready to go. Except for the wind.

Commercial shrimping season opens in most state waters at 8 a.m. today, and more than 400 boats are licensed in the state to go slay the crustaceans.

The old family business steams ahead in the face of uncertain profits and a sea of problems. The Anna Grace would have untied from its Shem Creek dock late in the night and moved south to get where the most shrimp were said to be swarming. But gale-force winds blew out in Charleston Harbor and 14-foot swells rose offshore.

This year's season is off to a rocky start after a year in which skyrocketing fuel prices tied up too many of the last of the Lowcountry shrimp boats.

Rector planned to launch the Anna Grace at 4 a.m. today. He expects to face the wind and seas with a sneer and one word: "Nasty." But he's going.

"We're hungry. It's been a long winter," crewman Signor said.

Nearly all the 2 million pounds or so of shrimp that will be harvested before the year's end are going somewhere else. Rector's Anna Grace is a freezer boat, where 60-pound sacks of shrimp are flash frozen, stored in a cooler and sold in bulk. Most of the shrimp actually sold in the Lowcountry is imported or processed through distributors. That's the way it is across the country.

On a good trip, Rector will spend as many as 15 days at sea. The last day's haul, or maybe the last drag, he'll keep fresh to sell to local customers.

"There's maybe five restaurants in Charleston that buy local shrimp," Rector said. He looked at the Mount Pleasant waterfront around him, past a darting snowy egret and a pelican swooping up over the rail to eye the boat's nets. "I'd say only half the restaurants on Shem Creek buy local."

Shrimping is a fickle craft. Too much rain or wind can disperse the crop. Drought, cold or storms can disrupt a spawn. No crew can be sure when they throw off the lines just how many pounds they'll come back with. They don't know until they tie up again how much money they'll get per pound. They

compete against an onslaught of cheaper, foreign, farm-raised product and Gulf shrimp.

They have been vilified by environmentalists and other fishermen for by-catch — fish brought up in the nets — as one of the reasons the offshore fish stock is depleted. In the past, many of them fought having to put turtle excluder devices on the nets; but the nets also reduced by-catch and became a point of pride.

The profit margin is pennies per pound. A $2-per-gallon spike in fuel prices can bankrupt them,

and shrimpers saw that last year between the spring and fall crops. The number of boats licensed today is far less than half the number licensed 10 years ago. A lot of those didn't even bother to launch when fuel prices climbed beyond $4 per gallon.

"There's not a whole lot of new blood coming into the business," said Rutledge Leland of Carolina Seafood in McClellanville.

Yet remarkably, the amount of shrimp harvested annually over the past decade has fluctuated within a half-million or so of that 2 million-pound benchmark, after peaking well beyond it in the mid-1990s.

That's because the shrimp crop has been holding steady, said Mel Bell S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director.

"The shrimp are there, if the guys can afford to get out there and shrimp. We're looking at a mirror image (in the crop) of last year," Bell said. The fewer boats are just working harder. The Anna Grace runs two nets at a time and won't quit so long as there's fuel and brimming nets.

"We fought our way through that $4.35 per gallon last summer. If it keeps to under $3 per gallon we'll be all right," Signor said.

South Carolina's shrimp crops are rich enough that four or five boats among the 20 preparing to go this week at the McClellanville dock were down from North Carolina. They'll fish and sell here until July, when shrimping gets better off the Tarheel state.

The business hangs on shrimping family to family, by its fingernails. The sprawling nets of the shrimp boats, a signature Lowcountry image, aren't going to disappear, at least not yet. Rector captains his dad's boat. He's been shrimping since he was 11 years old and he's 43 now. Signor has been shrimping longer. They're not going anywhere else.

"Aw heck, I get tired of land before I get tired of it out there," Signor said. "I plan to be the last crewman on the last boat in the ocean."