The price of shrimp is soaring, with cold winter temperatures, natural disasters and higher fuel costs playing a role in the lack of supply.
Lowcountry shrimp were devastated by the winter cold, meaning almost no fresh local shrimp are available this spring. The earliest any local shrimp might be available is late June because the state has delayed the opening of the commercial season.
The harvest problems couldn't have come at a worse time. Other domestic and imported shrimp cost consumers more because of factors such as high fuel prices, the Japanese tsunami and flooding in southern Thailand, where much of the shrimp imported to the United States is farmed.
The best hope for local crustaceans now is that brown shrimp, or summer shrimp, show up in enough numbers to open that season by late June.
The problems have pushed futures-market speculators to drive up the price. The market's investments are based on anticipated supply and demand and determine the wholesale price.
Tonya Hudson-DeSalve of Benny Hudson Seafood market on Hilton Head Island said her business is running low on shrimp frozen from last season, but she hasn't raised prices yet. She can't remember the last time the season started this late, and some retailers already are scrambling, she said.
Other Lowcountry shrimpers and sellers have increased their prices.
Craig Reaves of Sea Eagle and CJ's Seafood markets in Beaufort said prices across the board -- from dock to market -- are up an average of $1.50 per pound.
Bluffton Oyster Co. owner Larry Toomer said he's selling shrimp for at least $2 a pound more because of the delay and fuel costs. With a pound of large heads-off shrimp fetching about $10, Toomer said it's just enough to keep the boats operating.
Lowcountry shrimp boats have headed for Georgia and Florida but "aren't catching a whole lot," Toomer said.
Most years, Lowcountry waters begin bubbling with spawned shrimp when the waters warm, and commercial boats are setting nets by Memorial Day weekend.
But the second consecutive cold winter killed many of the white shrimp that make up the first harvest.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources delayed opening the season to protect the remaining shrimp so they can repopulate, and commercial shrimpers who began prepping their boats in early May are now waiting.
Reaves said the season delay is a good move because "there's not a lot out there for us to catch."
Survey nets off Beaufort last week pulled in only two white shrimp, said Larry DeLancey, DNR biologist. It was the latest in a series of all-but-empty samplings.
"The cold did them in, it looks like," he said.
Some small brown shrimp were captured last week, but it is still too early to tell how good that crop might be, DeLancey said. DNR plans more surveys in early June.
"All we can hope for is a decent summer and fall," Leland said. "If the little ones can show up for the brown shrimp, they grow pretty fast. That's what we're hoping for."
Allison Stice of The Island Packet and Bo Petersen of The (Charleston) Post and Courier contributed to this report.