Lives on the sea: CRAB WARS

The red shed behind Sonny White's home on Johns Island is now empty of customers and crabs. He made his living crabbing Lowcountry waters, but now has retired because of health problems.

JOHN'S ISLAND -- Capt. Sonny carried a rusting .38-caliber pistol whenever he boated out to Limehouse Creek to work his crab pots.

He once stuck the barrel up to the nostril of a poacher and told the man if he took another pot, he'd take his nose off with it.

That's how it was in the old days of the crab wars.

"Well, there wasn't too much law. If a man had something to take care of, he had to take care of it," Raymond "Capt. Sonny" White said. White did. The lifelong crabber earned a hard-nosed reputation among his peers and wildlife officers while he earned a hardscrabble living for more than 40 years.

"You had to," he said. A "wildlife (officer) was always after me."

The "wars" are Lowcountry lore, tales from a few decades ago of borderline lawlessness among commercial crabbers protecting creeks they considered their turf. It was supply and demand: If you want to catch tasty blue crabs, you go where they are, and that meant where the other guy was catching them.

Crabbers found their pots, or traps, swarmed by others. People cut the lines and stole crabs. The nastiness escalated again 10 years ago, when a five-year drought and other factors depleted the crab harvest while 10,000 or more pots were set out there to catch them.

The wars could return. Saltwater is moving

farther upstream in the brackish marshes, pushing the blue crab population along with it. Crabbers will follow, setting pots in smaller creeks up against the traditional saltwater demarcation line that is the commercial harvest boundary. The confines will have them setting pots closer up against each other.

"It always has a tendency to start again," said Capt. Chisolm Frampton of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "Commercial crabbers can be hard on each other, I ain't lying. Crabbing is hard. Pulling all those pots every day out there in the heat and cold. They take it very seriously and they should. They've got a lot invested in it."

'There's boots in there'

White is now 67 years old. He hasn't been on a boat in three years, not since a pacemaker and defibrillator were implanted by his heart. But for years, the simple "Whites Crabs" sign with its red arrow pointed the way from Main Road on Johns Island to the shed full of "pretty crabs" sought by thousands across the Lowcountry.

While other crabbers set out hundreds of pots, White worked 50 or so in creeks off the Stono River. He watched the price go from $1 per bushel to $45, jumbos as high as $150. A little more than a decade ago, he and his wife Joyce quit selling to northern markets when they realized they could make three times as much money selling from the shed out back.

White was one of those people DNR kept an eye on. He tells the story of letting a helper out of the boat at a marsh island near his pots so the man could take care of a personal need. No sooner had he disappeared in the brush, he came running out yelling, "There's boots in there!" Two wildlife officers quickly emerged, identifying themselves and waving their badges.

Joyce White remembers the day her husband came and asked her for a dollar. She gave one to him and he said, "You own the business now. You deal with the wildlife (officers)."

He is rough and cantankerous. The first time he took her crabbing she fell in love with open estuaries, the pelicans, the dolphins. Until he broke the reverie.

"My husband, the sweet gentle man I married, turned off the motor and said, 'Do you want to make some money or do you want to be a tourist?'" she said.

The other side of him doesn't show as readily. He'll talk about being his own boss. But ask him what he's seen out there, and he talks of the black swan on the tidal sands at Kiawah Island, the milk can hanging from his ceiling that he pulled from Coburg Creek, an object so old that it has only a three-digit phone number on it.

He's not above playing practical jokes, once throwing an octopus on Joyce's leg while she crabbed.

"I came unglued," she said.

'Weathered and crusty'

Wayward crabbers have been a thorn in the side of wildlife officers for generations. Jack Leland, a former Evening Post newspaper columnist, talked in 1983 about rumors that two men whose bodies were found floating in Hamlin Sound years before, and a man whose body was found in the Wando River, were drowned for raiding pots.

Enforcement is tough, Frampton said, because to charge someone with vandalizing a pot you have to catch them in the act.

In 2003, Sonny White joined a long list of crabbers convicted of vandalizing the lines of another crabber's pots. White said the helper on his boat cut the lines and he didn't see it because he's blind in one eye. The crabber had moved in on Sonny's pots in Coburg Creek, he said, and he just told the helper to get those lines out of the way.

White paid his fine and got back to work. In the last few years, Joyce White said, he drew more respect from wildlife officers; he had become one of those old-timer legends. They'd stop his boat, call him Captain and ask how Momma was. He'd snarl, "What do you mean, Momma? My momma's dead."

A photo of Capt. Sonny White was part of the 2006 Palmetto Portraits exhibit at the South Carolina State Museum. In the image, he has the hale look of a white-bearded Hemingway in a captain's cap. "He was a very kind man," photographer Nancy Santos wrote, "but looked weathered and crusty from his years at sea."

Today, White is thinner. He sits in his living room chair under a wall of portraits of him on the water. To one side is an oxygen tank, in case he needs it. To the other are two packs of Pall Mall cigarettes, one stacked atop the other on a table. The look in his eyes is direct. He doesn't care what you think of him.

Joyce White has pre-written an obituary notice for him, she said. It concludes, "He will be sadly missed by the South Carolina Wildlife." Frampton gives an appreciative chuckle when he hears. "That's a fair statement," he said. "That's a fair statement."

The blue crab is in trouble, the population evidently in a slow decline. The Whites saw the numbers drop while they were out on the water. She was among the crabbers who fought in the 1990s for a no nighttime crabbing law, to ease off the pressure. Like some other commercial crabbers, she lays blame at least partly on the harvest of "peelers," soft-shelled crabs that are a delicacy. They are females that have shed their shells in the early spring in order to mate and reproduce.

"Blue crabs started declining when they started taking peelers out," she said of the young blue crabs ready to shed their hard shells. "I have seen a soft-shelled crab in a market not even an inch big, lying on ice (for sale). Keep that up and there won't be any left."

She also thinks there should be a limit on the number of pots allowed. "You don't need to be hogging and have 400 pots. We're not going to have any crabs in a few years. They're heading for fresh water now."

Larry DeLancey, a Natural Resources crustacean monitoring program supervisor, said pot limits might be the way to go to try to maintain the species, but crabbers are divided on it and he doesn't see it happening any time soon. The amount of peelers taken each year is less than one-tenth of the 4 million pounds of crabs harvested, he said.

He's not sure that either restriction would make that much difference in the decline.

"The climactic conditions (causing saltwater to creep upstream) are overriding."