Drought level in Beaufort County worsens to 'moderate,' hurts fishing industry

bheffernan@islandpacket.comFebruary 7, 2013 

Hover your mouse over the image for an enlarged animated view of the U.S. drought conditions for the past 6 weeks. The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced in partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

MAP COURTESY OF NDMC-UNL — Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL

When Larry Toomer hauled in his 60 crab traps Tuesday, it was another reminder of how bad the winter fishing season has been.

He caught about 150 blue crabs — only two bushels worth. Last year, Toomer, who owns the Bluffton Oyster Company, pulled up 20 to 30 bushels per day, he said.

Now?

"We're barely breaking even."

Drought is making the seawater saltier and driving many crabs too far up freshwater rivers and creeks to catch legally, Toomer said.

One-tenth of an inch of rain fell on Hilton Head Island on Thursday for the second time in three weeks, but the the area will need more soon, or the drought "could be devastating to the shrimp and crab industries," said Toomer.

Shrimp spawning season is in February and March. If the estuaries, used as nurseries for shrimp larvae, are too crowded, there won’t be enough food to grow a strong population, said Toomer.

"They’re all fighting for the same microscopic dinner," he said.

The S.C. Drought Response Committee raised the drought level to "moderate" for Beaufort County last week. About half of the state's 46 counties are experiencing similar dry spells.

Each of the past three years have been drier than usual, according to data recorded at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport.

And, that's a problem, S.C. State Climatologist Hope Mizzell said.

The droughts have affected ground and surface water, marshlands, crops and forests in many parts of the state, including Beaufort County, Mizzell said. Prolonged droughts increase the risk of fires, too. South Carolina’s wildfire season stretches from mid-February to April.

Last month, only a half-inch fell at the airport — more than three inches below normal levels — according to National Weather Service data. This has been the area’s driest winter since 2008.

Craig Reaves, owner of Sea Eagle Market in Beaufort and C.J. Seafood in Port Royal, said the market price for crab is high now — between $14 and $20 per dozen — but that doesn’t help much when traps come up empty.

"We’re probably down a third from what we were catching last year," said Reaves.

This has been the worst winter for crabbing in five years, Reaves said. However, fluctuating markets and crops are natural in the commercial fishing industry, he said.

"We have to make a living on the water and deal with all the factors that come with that," he said. "You just have to take it as it comes."

Related content: South Carolina drought levels, by county

Drought officially over in Beaufort County, Sept. 27, 2012

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