It was early morning and the shrimp catch wasn't looking good for Capt. Laten Reaves.
There are good days and bad days on the water. Reaves has been at this for 50 years, and knows the first nets of the day are a sign of which one might be to come.
Shrimp boat crews cast out the small nets every half hour to predict the larger catch hoping for the sign of a good day: at least 50 shrimp. The nets for Reaves on this day brought in just 10.
"It might be one of those days," the captain said, idly steering his 80-foot trawler near St. Helena Island. "That's how it goes, but you just have to keep going."
Never miss a local story.
Reaves' family runs the Sea Eagle Seafood Market in Beaufort and its parent company, CJ Seafood, the county's largest local seafood wholesaler.
With three generations pitching in, the company continues to steadily grow in property and production, even as much of South Carolina's shrimping industry struggles.
With its success, the Reaves' business might offer a model for South Carolina's local shrimping industry to grow and allow Reaves' lifelong occupation of trawling the seas to continue.
Most local seafood purveyors rely only on local retail sales off the dock, but the Reaves' business, now run primarily by Laten Reaves' sons, Craig and Cameron, set its sights on bigger sales and new ways to make local seafood profitable.
The business now buys up much of the local shrimp from Beaufort County boats and purchases product from commercial fishermen around the state to offer in its two markets and to sell to companies such as the country's largest food supplier, Sysco, and grocery chains Piggly Wiggly and Bi-Lo.
The Reaves family hopes it can create a business robust enough to weather those bad days all commercial fishermen inevitably face.
"We've been in the local seafood industry so long, we'd hate to see it go away," Reaves said. "So we do everything possible to keep our business going. You have to keep pushing every day to make it work."
Above: Laten Reaves, captain of the Gracie Belle, steers the trawler toward the area he plans to catch shrimp Sept. 6 off St. Helena Island. Delayna Earleyemail@example.com@islandpacket.com
A lifetime of shrimping
Reaves, who his friends and crew call Pop, has been shrimping since he was 13 years old growing up on Holden Beach, N.C. He captained his first boat, the Cheryl Ann, when he was 16.
A self-described "country boy", Reaves can tell hours of colorful stories from a lifetime shrimping from Virginia to Mexico as he downs his drink of choice, Sun Drop soda, at the wheel of his 1970s trawler, the Gracie Belle, named for his mother and his wife's mother.
"I'm too old to just look at the negative now," Reaves said from his captain's chair. "But shrimping isn't all roses."
Unpredictable seasons have caused the Reaves family to pool money between generations to get through tough years, he said.
He has faced dangers out on the water as well.
Reaves lost two toes when a block from a high rigging fell on his foot.
Then just after paying off the insurance on a $265,000 shrimp boat, it exploded in a battery fire off the Florida Keys. He had to be rescued by nearby shrimpers and start over.
"It wasn't the first time I'd lost everything," he said. "But that one was hard. It was the first shrimp boat anybody had ever seen with a bathtub. Everybody laughed at me and my bathtub, but I loved that boat."
Reaves brought his family to Beaufort County in 1992 along with their shrimp boat and plans to make a living. Now in his late 60s, he continues to captain the Gracie Belle.
She is one of the bigger vessels among local shrimp boats with bunks for up to three crewmen, a small kitchen and a bathroom -- with no bathtub.
The ship is built with amenities for the many days-long trips shrimpers often have to take. Reaves' family has had to accommodate those long hours and the hard lifestyle of a shrimper his entire life as he has searched for an often elusive catch.
Over the years, Reaves and his family have also opened and run five seafood restaurants, including Reaves Fish Camp in Beaufort. Each had to close, but still they continued to make a living off the seas.
His motto became: Keep working, don't ever give up.
Now, his family's business has become the largest seafood buyer in the county.
"I'm proud of my sons. I really don't say it enough to them, but I am," Reaves said. "I look at them following me into shrimping and what they've built here and I'm proud."
When Reaves had health complications in recent years that threatened his mobility, he had a section cut out of the side of the Gracie Belle, in case he would need a wheelchair to continue captaining the boat.
"That won't stop me," he said. "I've lasted this long. I can last through this."
Above: Shrimp and oysters are shown at Sea Eagle Market on Boundary Street in Beaufort. Delayna Earleyfirstname.lastname@example.org
Building Sea Eagle
A year after the Reaves family came to Beaufort, Laten Reaves' son Craig and Craig's wife, Jana, began to build the business that is now the largest name in Beaufort County seafood.
The wholesale business, CJ Seafood, delivers product to Columbia, Myrtle Beach and throughout Beaufort County and has become a primary supplier for many local restaurants.
In 1996, the couple opened CJ Seafood Express, a little seafood stand on Ribaut Road in Port Royal, and the next year they bought the Sea Eagle Seafood Market on Boundary Street in Beaufort.
"It's grown a lot since we've taken over," Craig Reaves said. "And we keep growing."
While Craig Reaves runs the business and the market, his brother Cameron is charged with leading the fishing, including captaining his own shrimp boat, the Palmetto Pride.
To bolster the business year-round, even in the off season for shrimp, Cameron and the Reaves family raise and harvest clams and oysters, catch crabs and buy fish that can't be found locally from around the country and world to sell at their markets.
The company's deal with food distributor Sysco was one of the biggest steps in growing beyond a niche seafood market. Sysco buys local seafood from the company and connects them with large buyers looking for a local product.
"We'll go to Shem Creek and pick up shrimp off boats coming in at 9 a.m. in the morning," Craig Reaves said. "Sysco will pick up at the market here by 2 p.m. and it can be ready, cut and at the restaurant by 5 p.m."
Sysco gives Sea Eagle the infrastructure to sell beyond a local market that many shrimping families lack.
"We could never do that on our own," Reaves said.
A bright future
What Sea Eagle has created is a model for the larger seafood industry, Frank Blum, executive director with the South Carolina Seafood Alliance, said.
"They are really doing something that can help the larger industry," Blum said. "There are lots of people still in the seafood business making a living selling off the dock, but they won't help keep the larger industry alive. That is the difference with Sea Eagle."
Sea Eagle has also been active in the marketing of local S.C. product, searching for markets of people willing to pay for a local product.
For locals,the company started a seafood co-op they call a Community Supported Fishery, where customers pre-pay in advance for weekly packages of fresh seafood with labels showing where and when it was caught.Customers can pick up their orders each week at points in Hilton Head, Beaufort, Bluffton or Port Royal.
"This way fishermen can be paid in advance for the season," Craig Reaves said. "It gives them a little more freedom."
The Reaves family also runs a catering company that provides food for local festivals and events.
With all the different sources of income, the company has been able to grow and support local commercial anglers beyond the three trawlers the family owns and runs.
"It hasn't always been easy let me tell you, but we've been doing well when a lot of others haven't been so lucky," Laten Reaves said.
Capt. Reaves doesn't pay attention to those predicting the end of domestic shrimping. He believes it will stick around -- that bad signs don't always mean the end.
That was the case on a recent day at sea. The discouraging first nets were proven wrong.
The Gracie Belle brought in more than 500 pounds of shrimp for a half an average day's work.
Reaves sorted through the catch, looking pleased as the nets full of shrimp attracted swarms of seagulls looking for an easy meal.
"You never know how the day is going to be," Laten Reaves said. "But this day ended up not bad. Not bad at all."
Follow reporter Erin Heffernan at twitter.com/erinh.
- Is that seafood fresh, local? How to tell, May 20, 2014.
- Beaufort seafood business to sell shares in exchange for fresh fish, September 28, 2013