September 21, 2017

Shrimp Boats in the South – My Day as a Shrimper

Thirty years ago Shem Creek, South Carolina was home to over 50 shrimp boats.  Now there are less than 10.  This pattern of decline has been repeated in all of America’s fishing villages.
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Shrimp boats and commercial fishermen represent an important segment of America’s small business community.  They are some things we can be sure about regarding the decline.

  • Shrimp populations are not in decline because they are being overfished.  There are only 20% the number of shrimp boats that were on the water 30 years ago.
  • New technology does NOT help each boat to catch more shrimp.  Most of the shrimp fleet consists of very old boats using the same technology and techniques.  The only real difference is the addition of the sea turtle bars to prevent sea turtles from being caught in the nets.   This actually reduces total catch by a very small amount.
  • Foreign fishing vessels are not responsible for reduced domestic shrimp harvests.  Shrimp is a coastal marine critter and American shrimp do not venture out into international waters allowing the international fleets to harvest them.

Americans love to eat shrimp.  Instead of working on increasing our domestic populations, Americans buy 90% of the shrimp they consume from Asia.  Not a week goes by that there is not an impounding of a load of imports due to chemical and bacterial contamination.

Wounded Nature – Working Veterans believes we can rebuild America’s seafood industry by cleaning up the nursery grounds for shrimp and seafood species.  Most critical shrimp and seafood nursery areas have never been cleaned.  They are loaded with trash and debris all the way back in the tidal marshes at the high tide line.  Each day that this remains as is, additional trash and debris collect in these areas and continues to create dead zones that are no longer able to serve as shrimp nurseries.

Shrimp Boats are an icon in the South and looked for on the horizons by tourists and locals alike when visiting coastal areas in the mornings.

In order to learn more about fact and fiction regarding commercial shrimping, I ask Captain Tommy Edwards if I could spend the day aboard the MISS JUDY TOO.  She is a 30 year old, 60 foot shrimp boat.  Captain Tommy allowed me to spend the day as a greenhorn deckhand.  That means you stay away from any ropes, cables, or overhead objects that are moving.

Captain Tommy is very fortunate to have 3 full time deckhands that have been shrimpers all their lives.  DJ, Goat, and Sean all have fantastic work habits and this is a very clean and tidy boat.  Every time a rope is used, it is coiled and placed back on its hook neatly, and the deck is washed after every net pull.

For me being on deck at 3:30 am was a bit early, but the rest of Captain Tommy’s crew was already there, the motor was running and nets and chains were being repaired.  There was still some lingering wind and rough water as we left the docks.  The outside temperature was 43F as we pulled out and the water temperature was 63F.  The crew informed me that the best shrimping starts once the water temperature reaches 70 degrees F.

On a shrimp boat there is a large circular net on each side of the boat.  In front of this net is a “door” that runs along the bottom and scares critters up and into the following net.  The circular net openings on the big nets have metal bars across them to prevent sea turtles from being netted. Then there is a smaller net with a door and the same configuration called a Try net that is used to sample what is being caught in each area.  The Try net is pulled up every 20-30 minutes.  The rule of thumb used is for every shrimp caught in the Try net, there should be one pound of shrimp in the big nets and this determines when the big nets are pulled out of the water.

For me working the sorting table was a great experience.  Having been stung by a sting ray before, I made sure that I got all of the sting rays off my section of the table and back in the water before grabbing shrimp and throwing them in the baskets.  This is jellyfish season and they covered the bottom of the sort table every time the nets were dumped.  There were 3 species of jellyfish with cannonballs representing the bulk mass of what was collected.  This resulted in being coated in jellyfish slime from the chest down.  Once the rays were out of the way, the shrimp are gathered and any edible fish that conforms to size and species requirements gets thrown into baskets.  The rest of the sea life is returned to the ocean.

We had to prepare an order for a restaurant that requested 100 pounds of headless shrimp.  Everyone else was able to work their way using two hands popping the heads off of a pile of shrimp, but it is not a skill that is easily acquired.  My pile of headless shrimp was only about one third of everyone else’s by the time we were done working our way through the pile.

During Shrimp season if you want to stock your freezer with the freshest shrimp available, send Tommy a text and order 10 pounds or more South Carolina shrimp fresh from the ocean.  His number is: 843/442/2970, text before 9 am, first ordered, first served every day.  He will text you on the way in.  Bring your cooler and he will have your shrimp bagged, on ice, and ready to go as soon as he ties up the boat.  April/May, 2016 price is with the head on will be $4.50 per pound.  Tell him you want the Rudy price.

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Caught 3 miles off the Isles of Palms beach. He got inside the try net trying to eat the day’s catch. A rope and pulley were used to get him over the side and back in the ocean.

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The Galley – 5 minutes after bacon, sausage, eggs and grits were eaten it was this clean again.

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Ropes – the colors make it easier to follow the ropes overhead through the pulleys and make sure the right rope is grabbed.

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The nets and outriggers in the upright position until the boast is out of the harbor and past all of the channel buoys.

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Miss Judy Too – she looks great for her age.

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Net ropes

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Winches controlling the outriggers.

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Nets and outriggers up

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Nets on the deck waiting to be placed overboard.

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Baskets used on the sorting table to separate the catch.

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Baskets are stowed immediately behind the main net ropes until used – there is not much space on deck.

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Getting ready to put in the nets at 5 am. Shrimping is allowed from 5 am until 9 pm during shrimp season.

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Another shot of DJ and Goat getting the nets ready to go in.

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Opening the try net to see what has been caught within the past 20-30 minutes. This catch is sorted on the floor near a deck hold. so the shrimp can be grabbed and counted – everything else is immediately pushed off the boat and back into the water.

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The sort table awaiting a catch.

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Overhead lights shining on the catch deck – nets are in the water.

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Still dark, nets in the water.

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Sunrise – water is still rolling but the wind has died down some.

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Sunrise about to happen beyond the downrigger arm.

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Grabbing a net rope

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The sea birds watch and know when the nets are about to be pulled up and immediately they appear behind and on the boat. They move from shrimp boat to shrimp boat.

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Sunrise – Sign says “Certified South Carolina”. No Asian seafood here.

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Great way to start any morning.

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Captain Tommy working on taking shrimp orders.

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Weather Channel is on the top screen, GPS chart is on the bottom screen and the overhead had a depth finder.

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Pelican on the bow watching the sun come up while waiting for his breakfast.

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The birds telling Sean to hurry because they are hungry.

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Waiting for you to turn your back so he can steal a meal.

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Like a pair of salt and pepper shakers as they watch the catch get sorted.

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Do not look up when the catch is being sorted – you may get your eye dotted.

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The catch end of the net starting to be hauled onto the boat.

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As the net starts to get pulled in, it immediately get loud as veral hundred gulls will appear and start screaming.

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A catch was just dumped on the sort table and the net is getting ready to be placed back in the water before the sort.

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The sort table after a dump. The initial sort only takes about 10-15 minutes to get keepers in baskets and everything else back in the ocean.

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The try net shark on the floor looking for a foot or leg to bite. He was released and swam away.

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Nets being pulled in.

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Captain Tommy opening a catch net on the sorting table.

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Working the winches to get a net back in the water.

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Catch net on the sort table not yet opened.

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Catch net being opened on the sort table.

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This is the door in front of the try net.

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As the cable is reeled in it is guided onto the spools to guide it and prevent bunching.

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Try net and door in close and catch net and door beyond

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When the nets are pulled in the dolphins and sea birds try eating any little heads sticking through the nets.

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The seabirds are weary of getting too close to the dolphins.

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Net about to leave the water as the dolphins and seabirds try to pick off a meal.

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Start of the catch net coming onboard.

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Wrapping a rope around the catch net to help support pulling it over the side and onto the sort table.

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Catch net being guided onto the sort table.

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Putting everything away for the day.

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Heading into Shem Creek at around 3 pm.

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Boats who either stayed in (we only saw two other boats out due to wind and waves) or beat us back.

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Giving me the evil eye.

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After being thrown a fish, I get a profile shot.