Beaufort County shrimpers concerned as season officially begins Thursday

dburley@islandpacket.comApril 30, 2014 

After last year's weak crop, Beaufort County shrimpers are concerned this season will continue a trend of poor harvests.

Some expect low catch numbers, they said this week. Another shrimper said he might not trawl at all.

"I really don't feel like it's going to be a good season," Port Royal Seafood owner William Gay said. "There's a lot of ups and downs, and we've been down for a while."

The season begins Thursday as federal waters three miles off the coast open for trawling.

Many fishermen say they won't cast nets immediately. They'll save fuel and wait until shrimp-rich state waters open closer to the coast.

S.C. Department of Natural Resources officials will check federal waters to judge the crop. The federal waters are a good predictor of a season's harvest, said Mel Bell, DNR director of fisheries management.

The size of the shrimp so far "is a little below average," he said. "But we do have them."

Depending on shrimp size and water temperature, the agency decides when to open the more productive state season. Bell said it could be June 1 or later.

"The water temperature is going up slower this year because of the winter's cold weather," he said. "We're a few weeks behind."

Cold, rainy weather has wreaked havoc on harvests in two of the last three years.

In 2011, unseasonably cold weather pushed the start of the season to mid-June, limiting shrimpers statewide to 2.9 million pounds, about 10 percent less than average.

Last year, record rainfall devastated shrimping, Bell and others said. Shrimpers around the state barely hauled in 2 million pounds -- 1 million pounds less than average.

And the fall, when shrimp have spawned and fishermen normally reap the benefits, was especially meager. Rain flushed shrimp out of coastal estuaries and dropped catches statewide by 40 percent, compared to average years, according to agency figures.

"The rain just killed us," Bell said.

With another cold winter this year, Larry Toomer, who owns Bluffton Oyster Co., said he is cautiously optimistic.

"The colder the weather the fewer the shrimp," said Toomer, who was surprised shrimping waters were opening this early because of the chilly water temperature.

S.C. Seafood Alliance director Frank Blum estimates shrimp will fetch about $12 per pound off the boat, a little bit more than last season, he said.

Others aren't as hopeful.

Mark Smith of Port Royal said he didn't shrimp last year because there "was no money in it."

He might stay on the sidelines again this year, he said.

Gay said he's taking a wait-and-see approach as waters open Thursday.

"I'm liable to sit here to see if anyone catches anything," he said. "Fuel is too expensive to survive getting absolutely nothing."

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