Monday marked the first day of the 2012 shrimp season in South Carolina, as the S.C. Department of Natural Resources lifted its restrictions on provisional trawling areas.
The areas are essentially pockets of open water about two to three miles offshore used by the DNR to gauge the shrimp fishery's readiness for more extensive trawling closer to the coast.
And although the areas make up only about 25 percent of the general trawl zone -- which the DNR might not make available for another few weeks -- local shrimpers like Larry Toomer of the Bluffton Oyster Co. said they're glad to be back on the water.
"The first day coming out is always a blessing," said Toomer, adding the day's haul was about 1,000 pounds of white shrimp. "It turned out better than I anticipated."
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Because of an unusually mild winter, this year's shrimp season arrived about two weeks earlier than normal. Last year, the restriction on provisional trawling areas wasn't lifted until June 22.
Mel Bell, DNR director of fisheries management, said his agency decides when to open the season based on water temperature, citing its effects on the spawning behavior of shrimp.
"We've had accelerated warming of our coastal waters," he explained, adding that those waters haven't been as warm as they are this time of year since 1974.
The DNR will make the general trawl zone available only after monitoring hauls at statewide landings in the coming weeks to see how the spawn is progressing.
Bell added that shrimp are more commercially valuable than any other seafood caught in South Carolina, saying shrimpers sold more than $7 million of the shellfish dockside in 2011.
William Gay of Gay Fish Co. in northern Beaufort County said he was glad this year's haul was under way.
"We've got four boats on the water right now," he said Monday afternoon. "It would surprise me if we didn't do well today."