Shrimpers with chainsaws: Local commercial fishermen carry on after Hurricane Matthew, despite setbacks

Gay Fish Co. had damage and water intrusion on the docks and buildings, but the boats were not damaged. Robert Gay said that the docks and building repair is much easier than a damaged boat.
Gay Fish Co. had damage and water intrusion on the docks and buildings, but the boats were not damaged. Robert Gay said that the docks and building repair is much easier than a damaged boat. Tim Dominick

October is supposed to be a month for prime Lowcountry seafood.

The start of oyster season on the first of the month promises menus full of South Carolina’s briny bivalve. Locals prepare the bonfires for their ritual oyster roasts. Markets are set to still have shrimp fresh off the boat.

But this month, Hurricane Matthew had other plans.

The Category 2 storm put local seafood production on hold. The storm hit Beaufort County just a week after the start of the oyster season and in the middle of shrimp season.

But not to worry. Most local fishermen stayed with their vessels through the storm and — with the resilience the trade has always required — are making their way to recovery.

The oyster delay

There’s one clear, immediate impact on local seafood: There are still no fresh local oysters in South Carolina after Hurricane Matthew.

On Oct. 7, a day before the hurricane, all oyster beds in the state were closed. Run-off from heavy rainfall and possible sewage overflows in a hurricane can elevate bacteria levels in local waters, making oysters unsafe to eat.

The beds will be closed for an estimated 21 days and won’t be reopened until regulators from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control can confirm safe bacteria levels, according to the agency.

The delay comes after the beginning of the season was already pushed back a month this year because of unusually warm waters.

“There are a lot of folks out of work that really depend on this time of year,” said Craig Reaves, owner of Sea Eagle Market in Beaufort. “This is peak season.”

In time, however, any bacteria from the storm should wash away with the tide, Reaves said. Oysters are also their own filtration systems, with each mollusk able to filter 50 gallons of water a day.

The condition of the oyster reefs when the season resumes is also not completely clear, said Larry Toomer, owner of Bluffton Oyster Co., a longtime oyster-shucking business.

Toomer’s family has been in the seafood business in the Bluffton area since the early 1900s, he said

“We’re hoping everything will be fine, but you can’t really tell until you go out,” Toomer said. “It’s a hard lick on us because we specialize in local products, but we’re still open. We’ll survive one way or another.”

Obstacles and the unknown for shrimpers

A hurricane doesn’t necessarily mean a wipe-out of local shrimp either, according to Reaves.

The weather tends to drive shrimp offshore, which can actually make them easier to catch, but that benefit might be outweighed by the problems caused for shrimpers by debris from the storm, Reaves said.

Local waters are full of pieces of damaged docks, boats and waterside homes.

“A chainsaw becomes necessary equipment on a shrimp boat now,” Reeves said. “Anything you can imagine, we see: pilings, lawn chairs, refrigerators. Cutting through can be difficult and very costly.”

The long-term impact on local shrimp populations is also still not clear, local shrimpers say.

“I think the ocean needs a little bit of time to settle. Everything was stirred up out there,” Reaves said. “As it settles down, hopefully we’ll see the shrimp still there.”

Losses in the storm

There was some dock and boat damage reported at iconic Beaufort County seafood spots, but most were spared major destruction.

At the Benny Hudson Seafood dock on Hilton Head Island, part of the pilings were torn away when shrimp captain Charles Abner’s boat the “Lady Bernice” was torn from the dock and flung about 200 yards in the storm, though the main dock is still standing.

At the Bluffton Oyster Co., Toomer said he had to dispose of all the company’s frozen stock when the power went out in the storm and he lost some crab traps, but there was no major dock damage. The family’s 76-foot shrimp boat “Daddy’s Girl” was left intact.

North of the Broad River, most docks used by Sea Eagle Market and its parent company, CJ Seafood, the county’s largest seafood wholesaler, came through the storm unscathed, apart from some cleanup, owner Reaves said.

Gay Fish Co., located alongside the Harbor River on St. Helena Island, had some damage to its dock and water intrusion into the market during the storm, but the boats were not damaged, said Robert Gay.

“The dock got pretty messed up, but that’s fixable, real fixable,” Gay told The Island Packet on Thursday. “... It could have been a lot worse.”

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh