The City Magazine Since 1975

State of the Creek: State of the Shrimpers

State of the Creek: State of the Shrimpers
August 2016
“They say we’re a dying breed,” says fourth-generation shrimper Franklin Rector. “That’s nowhere near true. Every year there’s a new boat on the creek. What’s more, the boats aren’t run by a whole bunch of old people. Heck, on the Tarvins’ Miss Paula, there’s nobody over 26, and that includes the captain.”

“They say we’re a dying breed,” says fourth-generation shrimper Franklin Rector. “That’s nowhere near true. Every year there’s a new boat on the creek. What’s more, the boats aren’t run by a whole bunch of old people. Heck, on the Tarvins’ Miss Paula, there’s nobody over 26, and that includes the captain.”

Franklin is the grandson of veteran shrimper and Geechie Dock owner Captain Bubba Rector. Hot and sweaty after a day on the water, the 22-year-old has the energized look of a day well spent. Their boat, the Warren H. Rector (named for his great-grandfather) had come in with what Franklin modestly termed a “good” catch.

“We’re just changing—adapting to the times,” clarifies Bubba. “The shrimp are out there. We catch what we can sell and then come on in. No use bringing in shrimp you can’t sell.

“We’re not supplying the major markets like we used to,” he continues. “In the old days, there were lines of trucks waiting to haul the shrimp across the nation. That market was overtaken by imported foreign shrimp. Today, we’re mainly supplying the local market.”

Add dock rental fees and insurance rates so high they are cost-prohibitive (or not available at all), and it’s no wonder some shrimpers decided to find other, more profitable ways to make money. Yet those remaining are committed to staying put. Along with the Rectors, they (and their trawlers) include Captain Tommy Edwards (Mrs. Judy Too), the Tarvin family (Miss Paula and Carolina Breeze), Michael Cobb (Family Thing), Larry Cobb (Bridget), Wayne Magwood (Winds of Fortune), Tommy Cannon (Lady J.), Michael Brown (Lady Paige), Mark and Paul Richardson (The Richardson Brothers), and the Vietnamese-owned trawlers (Capt. Tang, Sea Horse, and Captain BTS)—the last two are known as the “blue fleet” for the color of their hulls.

“The Vietnamese mainly do their own thing,” explains Cindy Tarvin, who runs Tarvin Seafood at the Wando Seafood dock. “They supply various Asian restaurants and markets.”

Relatively new to the creek, the Tarvins were introduced to shrimping when their son, Vasa, began crewing on Winds of Fortune at age 12. He took to the water “like he was born to it,” says Cindy, so the family decided to invest in his future, buying Miss Paula in 2011. They recently added the Carolina Breeze, a newer, steel-hulled trawler that’s one of the only insured boats on the creek. “Insurance simply isn’t available on the older wooden-hulled trawlers,” says Cindy. When asked the insurance cost for the Carolina Breeze, she rolls her eyes. “It’s not cheap.”

Today’s shrimpers are testing the market by increasing the amount of shrimp they freeze, preserving the unsold catch to sell in the off-season. Bubba Rector’s wife, Pam, was floored when she saw how quickly the 11 freezers they’d filled with shrimp sold last year. “We thought it would last us until spring, but it was gone before Christmas,” she says.

Because few grocery stores offer locally caught shrimp, shrimpers sell straight from the docks, at the Rectors’ Geechie Dock; Tarvin Seafood at Wando Dock; or the old Magwood facility, now owned by James “Bubba” Simmons. They use social media to let people know when the boats are in and the shrimp are available. And last April, the Town of Mount Pleasant started a Saturday morning fish market next to Moultrie Middle School on Coleman Boulevard.

“The demand is there,” says Pam. “I think people are beginning to understand that local shrimp not only taste better, they’re better for you. That foreign farm-raised stuff may be cheap, but it is pure poison.”

According to a 2015 Consumer Reports study, 94 percent of the shrimp sold in supermarkets and restaurants across the nation is imported—mostly farm-raised in countries such as India, Indonesia, and Thailand, with little to no environmental or health laws. Shrimp are crowded into industrial tanks or shallow ponds often surrounded by pig and cattle farms. Contaminants—from fecal matter to chemical fertilizers to pesticides—can seep into these ponds. To combat farm-raised shrimp’s high susceptibility to disease, they are fed tetracyclines and other antibiotics.

Consumer Reports also found high incidences of bacteria in imported farm-raised shrimp, including MRSA, a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics and causes more than 11,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. While Federal laws require that shrimp intended for the U.S. market cannot be raised using “unapproved” substances, enforcement is practically nonexistent. In 2014, the FDA tested just 0.7 percent of foreign shipments. Of all the shrimp in the Consumer Reports study, wild caught were the least likely to harbor any kind of bacteria or contain chemicals.

“I think if people knew the hidden ingredients in that package of frozen shrimp they get at the grocery, they’d never eat another one,” says Pam.

What is a Shrimp?

South Carolina is home to three species of shrimp: brown (Farfantepenaeus aztecus), white (Litopenaeus setiferus), and pink (Litopenaeus duorarum). The brown variety has a reddish tail edged in dark green, while the white shrimp have black near the base of their tails with tinges of yellow and green on the edges. Pink shrimp have a light purplish-blue tail and a red spot on the abdomen. Brown and white shrimp are more common.

• Shrimp spawn in the ocean, and a single female may spawn several times, producing between 500,000 and 1,000,000 eggs. Brown shrimp spawn in late fall; white shrimp in the spring and early summer. The exact timing depends on water temperature.

• Less than two percent of the eggs survive to adulthood.

• Shrimp reach the post-larval stage after about two weeks. Post-larval brown shrimp remain in the ocean bottom sediments during the winter. As the ocean warms in late February and March, the crustaceans become active and ride tidal currents into the estuaries. White and pink shrimp move into the estuaries about two weeks after spawning, usually in late May and June, moving further in with each high tide.

• Juvenile shrimp settle in the upper end shallows of tidal creeks and stay in this “nursery” for two or three months, growing to about four inches long. To escape predators, they move to protective marsh grass to feed at high tide. At low tide, they gather in creek beds, the smaller staying close to the banks and larger seeking deeper waters.

• Shrimp grow quickly, up to 2.5 inches per month, molting their exoskeleton several times a week. They seldom live more than eight or nine months.

Want to learn more about local shrimpers and their tasty catch? Watch George Motz’s short film, Head On: Shrimping in the Lowcountry, which premiered at the 2013 Charleston Food Film Festival.

Head On: Shrimping in the Lowcountry.

Buy Local Shrimp (In Season) at These Locations in Mount Pleasant:

Captain Tommy Edwards (Mrs. Judy Too)
*Call or text to pre-order
106 Haddrell St. (The Wreck of the Richard & Charlene restaurant parking lot)
(843) 442-2970

Captain Wayne Magwood
(Winds of Fortune)
*Call or text to pre-order or follow Team Magwood on Facebook; corner of Mill St. & Coleman Blvd.
(843) 200-8228

Geechie Seafood
248 Magwood Ln.
(843) 860-7046

Magwood C A Jr. & Sons
110 Haddrell St.
(843) 884-3352

Mount Pleasant Seafood
1 Seafood Dr.
(843) 884-4122

Tarvin Seafood
02 Haddrell St.
(843) 324-5281

Town of Mount Pleasant Weekly Fish Market
Moultrie Middle School
645 Coleman Blvd.
Saturdays, 8 a.m.-noon

To read the next section, “Working Creek to Party Creek,” click here.