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Article for May - June 2007

Living For Shrimping, Shrimping For A Living
by Ford Walpole

Shrimp Boat at SunriseEven as dusk closes in on their industry, South Carolina shrimpers savor the magnificent dawns they feel privileged to view from the decks of their picturesque trawlers.

If you have had the good fortune to enjoy firsthand the natural beauty of a South Carolina seashore, perhaps a distant shrimp boat enhanced your view. Indeed, framed by a warming sunrise and pitching on a rolling sea, the trawler seems somehow a living inhabitant of this place; the vessel's outriggers take on the appearance of wings or fins. Eager gulls, pelicans and porpoises follow an indigenous, surrogate-mother ship, ready to return the craft's by-catch to the food chain.

Shrimping vessels have trawled South Carolina waters from Beaufort to Little River since the 1920s but of late have faced growing challenges. Making ends meet grows harder every year, but today’s shrimpers, like their predecessors on the water, seem to have it in their hearts. Though they talk freely of the obstacles, they find enough benefits to stay in it.

Members of Capt. Wayne Magwood's family initially hauled agricultural freight on their boats before Willie, his cousin, and Junior, his father, began shrimping. "I've been in it as long as anybody," he recalls. The boats tied up at Adger's Wharf in Charleston and later drifted to Shem Creek. On the creek, Junior built the Skipper and Wayne, named for his boys. "The mayor and the whole town showed up for the launching," Magwood recalls of the boat he would grow up to run. "Momma dressed us up in sailor suits. That was 1956; I was four."

During World War II, the government "confiscated" a portion of the shrimpers' catches, which was sacrificed for the war effort. During the war, the Coast Guard kept watch at the "Hall," at the Sea Island Yacht Club in Rockville. Capt. Jim Green, who was shrimping in the ocean, spotted a German sub and reported it to Coast Guard officials; they subsequently located and shot down the enemy sub.

Green’s real contribution to his region was bringing in its first double-rig shrimp boat. A double-rig boat has the capacity to catch more shrimp because each of its rigs can pull a net. Before they discovered the double-rig, local shrimpers used smaller boats pulling single, rear-drag nets. You might even say Capt. Green sacrificed his life for the shrimping industry; he built a number of steel boats and, as a result, died of lead poisoning.

Georgia Tisdale sorts the day's catchStill, Capt. Green’s legacy endures. His son Jimmy, who now runs East Coast Seafood, shrimped for years. Jimmy married Linda Davis, a shrimper’s daughter, and he inspired his brother-in-law John Copeman to join the life. Jimmy's son Jim has also shrimped his own freezer boat (a boat equipped with an electric freezer).

Brothers Con and Gussie Stevens began a shrimping fleet in Rockville, too. Their nephew Micah LaRoche, the longtime owner of Cherry Point Seafood, muses: "My first memory is a wharf memory. My grandfather, Micah J. LaRoche, was standing on a pine log with an adze, making a shrimp boat mast."

Besides being a fisherman, a shrimper must be a bit of a carpenter, welder, mechanic, painter and tailor. Seasickness landed Gussie Stevens the role of dock captain. LaRoche describes Cap'n Gus's passion: "He just loved to see if he could make an engine run and a boat float."

McClellanville's Georgia Tisdale recalls her own and her late husband Richard's debut into the industry. "After working on a boat for six weeks, Richard decided, 'We need to be shrimpers!' " He was a machinist at Georgetown Steel when he bought his inspiration—the steering wheel. "We worked on the boat for two years in our spare time. We built it upside-down in an old horse arena. A house mover and crane helped set the boat in the water, and then we built the cabin." Considering the countless drums of Sea-Flex the couple brushed on the Miss Georgia, she laughs: "For years, I said our clothes glistened with resin on the clothesline!"

During a season from May until early January, shrimp trawlers pull nets within sight of the Carolina shore. Captain John Davis jokes: "Where's the best place to catch shrimp? Look where all the other boats are and start dragging there!" He explains that shrimpers call a sandy bottom a dead bottom. The shrimp congregate in the mud.

Shrimp Boat trawlingShrimpers may set out their nets at 6:00 a.m., so they leave the dock around 5:00. Drags typically last three hours, and shrimpers will conduct three drags a day during peak opportunities. The try-net is a small net checked every 25 minutes and used to estimate the catch. "Hauling back" is the term for pulling the nets and dumping the catch on the deck. At this time, captain and crew isolate the shrimp from the by-catch with a culling iron and their fish-gloved hands. Then, while the second haul is under way, shrimp may be sorted by size and headed, depending on whether they will be sold with heads on.

As for conditions, Davis continues: "You don't catch anything the day after a Northeaster." "Then, the second day after a Northeaster is very good," his wife Susan adds.
"But that's a secret!" John Davis smiles. "Other good times are when you have low, minus-tides." These low tides "flush shrimp out of the rivers during the summer," he continues. "They also stir up the bottom," exposing shrimp that are "buried up" in the mud.

McClellanville novelist and former shrimper Billy Baldwin says that shrimp persistently congregate in areas where debris and snags will tear shrimp nets. "People used to wait on someone to get hung up in 'The Roots,' an old live-oak forest," says Baldwin. Then, the shrimpers would use their unfortunate comrade as a "buoy" and drag safely and exuberantly around him.

All the trouble is worth it, though. South Carolinians insist that their local wild shrimp are much tastier than shrimp from the Gulf, overseas or—Heaven forbid—raised on foreign shrimp farms. Susan Davis and Georgia Tisdale, professional chefs in the sense of the Southern family, are the first to stand by local shrimp. "Our shrimp are the best," Davis declares.

Tisdale is now marketing director for the S.C. Shrimpers Association, and her organization supports this claim with some nutritional facts: "South Carolina ocean-caught shrimp are low carb, low fat, low calorie and a good source of protein." In addition, they provide "heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, vitamins (B6, B12, D), niacin, iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium."

As Bubba says in Forrest Gump, a classic movie filmed in South Carolina, there are quite a few ways to prepare shrimp. When I accompanied Georgia Tisdale on the Miss Georgia, now owned and run by her son-in-law Gardner McClellan, 27, she boiled a mess of shrimp with their heads still on. But McClellan passed on this delicacy, explaining: "I'm not sure I want to eat something that's looking at me!"

Conversation with anyone who's been in commercial shrimping over the years quickly gets around to changes in the industry. McClellan sometimes cannot imagine what it was like without recent technological advances with which boats are now equipped. John Davis thinks that rubber, ventilated Crocs brand clogs are the best footwear a shrimper could have. "I hate wearing those white boots; they’re hot, and the inside never dries out," he laughs.

A turtle exculsion devicePeople have begun to take sea turtles and other by-catch into consideration. David Whitaker, with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, has worked extensively with commercial shrimpers to help reduce by-catch. Since 1989, shrimp boat nets have pulled TEDs, or turtle exclusion devices. These oval-shaped, metal frames allow shrimp to pass through grids, while freeing loggerhead and leatherback turtles and large sharks.

Whitaker acknowledges the shrimpers' initial apprehension about this regulation. However, Capt. John Copeman says that TEDs allow for a much cleaner harvest; in fact, he modified his Yankee's TEDs with additional grids to decrease unwanted jellyfish. LaRoche adds that TEDs also exclude "bats," or stingrays.

In the off-season, Capt. Magwood supplements his income and does his part to protect sea turtles by trawling the Winds of Fortune ahead of dredging machines and catching the creatures, removing them from harm's way. He then releases the turtles in safer waters.

While some industry changes have been for the better, commercial shrimpers face increasing challenges. Perhaps the most important is dock space; coastal development tempts dock owners to sell their valuable waterfront property. This not only reduces the amount of available dock space, but creates a situation in which many shrimp boats have to pay dockage fees as they compete with sportfishing yachts for the limited space. This adds extra pressure to many shrimpers' already overburdened finances.

This problem is also important from the perspective of the Lowcountry's priceless artistic landscape. Painters have always preferred immortalizing the character of shrimp boats and shrimp docks over nondescript condominiums and expensive sportfishing yachts.

Michael "Drac" Mack sweeps by catch off the deckGetting a fair price for their catch is also a concern. In many cases, shrimp prices have failed to rise with the increasing expenses, particularly fuel prices. Some shrimpers worry about whether they can continue to provide fresh, local shrimp as a healthy alternative to those from overseas, which are flooding the markets. "At least consumers now have a choice of a natural, healthy alternative, and what's going to happen to the price of cheap imports if there are no more local shrimp?" says Tisdale.

She hopes that a proposed, in-state processing plant will help bypass the middle man and secure remaining shrimpers a significantly higher profit. The plant would garner chitosan from the crustacean's byproduct. According to NutraSanus.com, "chitosan may have beneficial effects on lipids and may be useful for those suffering from renal failure. There is also evidence to support that chitosan might even help to prevent atherosclerosis and could play a role in wound healing, some types of diabetes and liver disease. It has also been suggested that chitosan may help to reduce weight, prevent cancer, heal ulcers, aid digestion and help the immune system."

Besides dockage and price, shrimpers face additional infrastructure problems. For example, steadily disappearing are essential railways where boats can be pulled out of the water for repairs. Crew members are now lured by steadier and more secure jobs, supply houses have closed, and dock owners must "peddle" their shrimp and try to convince trucks to travel to docks that now ship less product.

LaRoche anguishes: "The hardest part is seeing men willing to work—the best in the business—and they can't make it. It's hard to look in their eyes. It's like looking in a fish's eyes when you pull it up out of the water. I'm not sucking on sour grapes, but what is—is. I've done everything I can think of to stick a rag in a hole."

James Island's Thomas Backman, 67, once commanded one of the East Coast's largest fleets. Now, he has one boat, and it stays tied up and is for sale. "Who wants to buy a shrimp boat, and what bank's gonna loan him money?" he asks. "There's no if's, and's or but's about it. The shrimping industry is gone,' he laments.

Nevertheless, a few of these men passionately and stubbornly endure. Lifetime and legacy shrimpers John Davis and Wayne Magwood are determined to keep working their boats, but both men are now in their fifties. Susan Davis explains John's position: "Shrimping is his whole life; it's all he knows, and it's who he is. How do you put a price on that?"

David Donnelly, 35, owns and fishes McClellanville's Village Lady, a vessel that's been in the water since 1957. "It's been tight the past few years, and lately there have been a lot of short tempers," he says.

Captain Gardner McCellan SteersGardner McClellan sometimes worries whether he will maintain the company he now keeps in the ocean. And this camaraderie is, to him, one of the best parts of shrimping. "Most people have to get off work to go play with their friends. But all of my friends are right out here," he gestures.

"The uncensored radio banter provides some fine entertainment, and it remains one of my fondest memories from shrimping—a generation ago," recalls John Davis of his time aboard the Miss Marilyn, then owned by his legendary father, Cap'n Miley. These days, the boat is often alone in the ocean, and Davis admits that the silent radio "makes for a long day."

"Shrimpers on the radio speak a language all their own," Baldwin smiles. "I used to enjoy all of the codes. And the lies! Shrimpers will lie to their best friend and their brother!" he roars.

Susan Davis adds: "Those same shrimpers who will never tell you where they are catching shrimp will be the first to tow you back if you have a breakdown. Our society is losing that wonderful sense of community."

So what keeps people shrimping, considering the many hardships and setbacks? "They certainly don't seem to be in it for the money. These men are fiercely independent. They are just hard-working, good people with a true love for boats and the ocean," Whitaker remarks. When asked the same question, LaRoche suggests, "It must be grits!"

For Donnelly, "The best part of it is the morning. I love watching the sun come up." Other shrimpers agree, and my trip on the Miss Georgia enlightened me as to just what these men describe. As the bright orange sun began to rise against a sky of jet, it mimicked the head of a jellyfish, while its less-perfect watery reflection mimed a bloody myriad of dancing tentacles.

Magwood describes the attraction of his workplace: "I just love being out in the ocean with myself and God. It’s just soothing and relaxing. It's a good thing. Sometimes you have to fight Mother Nature, but that sure beats going ashore and having to fight people."

Capt. John Davis"They used to say that salt water gets in your veins," Davis adds. "I guess I never knew how much I loved it until they tried to take it away from me," he says without bitterness, referring to a nameless, inanimate and indefinite adversary.

Shem Creek's Sonny "Hagg" Schirmer offers his two-cents' worth: "I love every single thing about shrimping!" he explains. Now 78, this old salt's health prevents him from running his beloved Miss Diane. But he still pays dockage and comes down every day just to look at her. "I'd go shrimping right now, if I could."

Backman agrees with Schirmer. He still maintains his 75-foot Backman Enterprises. "Shrimp boats. It ain't nothing but a picture. I just love lookin' at 'em. I look at that boat, and all headache just goes away."

Sorting the Catch

Ford Walpole teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston.

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