The price of shrimp is soaring with cold weather, natural disasters and higher fuel costs playing a role in the lack of supply.
Lowcountry shrimp were devastated by the winter cold, meaning there are no local shrimp to buy this spring.
The earliest any local shrimp might be available is late June because the state has delayed the opening of the commercial season.
The harvest problems couldn't have come at a worse time. Other domestic and imported shrimp are costing more at the store because of a combination of factors such as high fuel prices, the Japanese tsunami and flooding in southern Thailand, where much of the shrimp imported to the United States is farmed.
One Lowcountry customer reported retail shrimp selling as high as $15 per pound.
The best hope for local crustaceans now is that brown shrimp, or summer shrimp, show up in enough numbers to open that season by late June.
The problems have pushed futures market speculators to drive up the price. The market's investments are based on anticipated supply and demand and determine the wholesale price.
Meanwhile, everything agricultural costs more when fuel prices get too high, said James Wright, SeaFood Business associate editor.
'It's more expensive to get it from point of origin to market,' he said. At a certain point, suppliers have to pass on the expense to retailers. 'Once fuel hits that $4 per gallon territory ... $4-per-gallon for fuel is one of those breaking points,' he said. And more than 80 percent of the seafood consumed across the country is imported.
Most years, Lowcountry waters begin bubbling with spawned shrimp when the waters warm, and commercial boats are setting nets by Memorial Day weekend. But the second cold winter in a row dropped temperatures low enough to kill the white shrimp that make up the first harvest.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources delayed opening the season to protect the remaining shrimp so they can repopulate, and commercial shrimpers who began prepping their boats in early May are now sitting and waiting.
'There's nothing anywhere. There is no way you can work right now,' said Rutledge Leland, owner of Carolina Seafood in McClellanville. 'It looks pretty bleak. The spring season is written off.'
Survey nets off Beaufort last week pulled in only two white shrimp, said Larry Delancey, DNR biologist; it was the latest in a series of all but empty survey net pulls. 'The cold did them in, it looks like,' he said. The same nets last week did bring in some small brown shrimp, but it was too early to tell how good that crop might be, DeLancey said. DNR plans another round of surveys in early June.
'All we can hope for is a decent summer and fall,' Leland said. 'If the little ones can show up for the brown shrimp, they grow pretty fast. That's what we're hoping for.'
Inshore water temperatures last winter twice hovered in the upper 40s — the danger point — for days at a time. It had an impact. Hundreds of thousands of dead menhaden were found on Folly Beach one morning in January, apparently killed by the cold water. Thousands of dead starfish on Isle of Palms were found in December in an earlier cold spell. In 2010, similar frigid weather in January caused some die-off in the Lowcountry.
In the winter of 2000-01, prolonged water temperatures at about 46 degrees destroyed an estimated 97 percent to 99 percent of the shrimp population, and caused a massive die-off of seatrout. It took two seasons for the shrimp to recover fully, and five seasons for seatrout.
Anglers are pulling in some seatrout, but they have been mostly small, few and far between, said Grant Able, of Haddrell's Point Tackle & Supply in Mount Pleasant, on Monday.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.