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Carolina shrimpers in uncertain waters

The world seemed especially dark, with only a few stars and a sliver of a moon, as the Village Lady trawler plied down Jeremy Creek, riding with the tide and a captain's faith that the shrimping industry can survive.

David Donnelly needed no lights to guide him out the narrow creek, across the Intracoastal Waterway, into wider Five Fathom Creek and to the ocean. He skirted the shallows, following the curve of the marsh, hand steady on the wheel.

Donnelly, who is 38, loves these waters, and it was that love which steered him away from college 18 years ago and onto a shrimp trawler. It keeps him readying his nets most mornings by 5, and dragging them for 14 hours a day.

Hundreds of other shrimpers have given up.

Not long after Donnelly bought the Village Lady in 1996, inexpensive pond-raised shrimp from Asia and South America flooded the market. That drove down the price per pound and drove many local shrimpers out of business. More than 85 percent of shrimp now sold in the U.S. is imported. The rising cost of diesel fuel this season has kept even more shrimpers off the water.

As many as 60 trawlers once put out from this fishing village 40 miles north of Charleston. Fewer than a dozen boats are now tied up at the dock and often only a handful take a chance out in the ocean, gambling that they'll catch enough shrimp to offset costs.

Scrapping by, Donnelly calls it. “I'm trying to make what I can with this,” he said. “I don't know what else I would do.”

For nearly 100 years, the shrimping industry has defined some of the most picturesque spots on the Carolinas coast, places such as Shem Creek and McClellanville in South Carolina, Calabash and Oriental in North Carolina, where trawlers tie up at the docks at the end of a summer day and vacationers know to be there to buy fresh shrimp. If you walked along most any beach 20 years ago you'd see dozens of trawlers off-shore, part of a fleet of more than 3,000 in the two states. But their way of life is disappearing. Only about 1,000 trawlers now work.

This summer, a nonprofit called Wild American Shrimp Inc., partnered with the state of South Carolina and some grocery chains to promote local shrimp. The wild shrimp from our coast, advocates say, is a healthy, naturally sustainable resource, more nutritious and tastier than shrimp raised in ponds overseas.

“I wouldn't eat that damn imported shrimp,” said Clay Cable of the S.C. Shrimpers Association. “They're horrible.”

A niche market, Cable said, is the only hope for local shrimpers to compete. Some grocers, including Harris Teeter and The Fresh Market, are promoting local shrimp, and some restaurants, too. “If it hadn't been for the marketing program, with the huge increase in diesel prices, the boats would all be tied up this year,” said Eddie Gordon of Wild American Shrimp. “The demand has increased for domestic production. They've been able to increase their prices enough to go fishing.”

Last year, Donnelly sold brown shrimp for between 85 cents and $1.25 a pound, depending on the size; this year, for as much as $1.25 to $1.75.

As the sky lightened to a pale pink, three trawlers followed the Village Lady into the Atlantic. On board with Donnelly was 73-year-old Thomas Geathers, who remembers shrimping 60 years ago when it brought him a penny a pound.

The two men worked the 58-foot boat with few words between them, synchronized like dance partners. Each rolled a rope around a drum, lowering two metal outriggers over the water. They're the parts of the shrimp boat that look like wings. They hold up the nets, and when they're spread out, it usually means a boat is trawling. Geathers used a rope to lower the starboard net as Donnelly guided it into the water with a hook; then they lowered the net on the port side. The boat forged ahead, on autopilot, getting about 8 miles to the pricey $4.25-a-gallon diesel fuel.

Two wooden “doors” weighted with metal runners hold the nets open as they scoop up shrimp and fish and an occasional small shark from the bottom of the sea, 35 feet down. The nets are 65 feet long and taper to narrow ends, where the catch settles. Geathers also lowered a 12-foot net called the “try net,” which they pull up every 20 minutes to see whether they're catching much shrimp. If they are, they stay the course; if not, they change direction.

It was 6:26 a.m. when they began trawling. “This time a year nobody's real excited,” Donnelly said. “Other times I would have been dragging by 5 o'clock.”

The numbers of brown shrimp in the shallow reaches of the ocean are dwindling and the bigger white shrimp, which bring more money, haven't yet migrated out of the creeks, so each day is a risk. They've got to catch enough shrimp to outweigh the cost of fuel, ice and upkeep on the boat.

The day before, they motored 10 miles up the coast near the Santee River, where earlier in the summer they had caught 2,800 pounds on a similar tide. But the shrimp were no longer there. They caught only 60 pounds.

“We messed up,” Donnelly said. He would have done better if he had continued to trawl closer to McClellanville and that's why he was back.

Behind the Village Lady, the 150-year-old Cape Romain Lighthouse rose above Raccoon Key and a bright red ball of a sun slowly peeked above the horizon. Waves rocked the trawler in slow swells. “I hope that I can do this for a long time,” Donnelly said. “I enjoy being out here, especially in the morning. It's nice and peaceful.”

With nothing to do but wait as the boat dragged the nets, Geathers hosed down the deck, and Donnelly retreated to the air-conditioned cabin, where he propped up his feet and looked toward the horizon, wondering what was happening beneath the surface.

After 25 minutes, Geathers hauled in the test net, untied a line at the bottom and the catch fell out. He picked through a mess of squirming, squishy sea life, counting shrimp, and scraping jellyfish and bottom fish back into the ocean. Porpoises riding the waves snatched up the free meal, vying with gulls.

“Eighty-nine,” Geathers called after counting the shrimp. A good sign that the bigger nets would bring enough to get by.

Now that brown shrimp season is nearly over, Donnelly is just trying to hold on until the white shrimp season begins in September. In the winter, he harvests oysters and clams. His wife, Joli, manages a bank.

For a couple of years he traveled up to Pamlico Sound off the coast of North Carolina to shrimp, but now that he has two children, he stays close enough to return home most nights. The trawler has bunk beds, a stove and a refrigerator for times when the catch is too good to quit.

Porpoises and sharks

This morning, he steered the Village Lady toward Bull Island and the nearer he got to shore, the fewer the shrimp in the try net. So he did a U-turn and spent the rest of the day trawling in a tight circuit back and forth. The boat left behind a long brown wake as the nets raked the ocean bottom, a practice some environmentalists decry.

At 8:54 a.m., it was time to empty the big nets. Cables clanged as they wrapped around the metal drums. The nets emerged from the ocean and, as they did, porpoises and sharks surfaced behind the boat, and gulls circled the deck.

Donnelly grabbed each net with the hook and wrestled it onto the boat. Geathers spent the next hour and a half picking out the shrimp and scraping the other sea life off the boat. They ended up with a couple of hundred pounds of shrimp. Every 25 minutes for the rest of the day, they emptied the try net and two more times, they hauled in the big nets.

Mid-afternoon, with ice in the huge cooler running low, they stowed the nets. The sky darkened and lightning crackled above the village. They plowed back up Five Fathom Creek riding the incoming tide, across the Intracoastal Waterway, into little Jeremy Creek and to the docks.

Workers were waiting to weigh the shrimp:

Six hundred and eighteen pounds.

At $1.70 a pound, the shrimp brought in just over $1,000 at the dock. After paying Geathers and deducting the cost of fuel and ice, Donnelly figured he had about $400 left, most of which will go toward covering his losses from the day before, repairing a radar and other upkeep on the Village Lady.

“It's nothing good,” he said, “but it's something.”

He bought 1,200 more pounds of ice and re-filled the cooler, hoping as always, that the next day's haul would be better.

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