Craig Reaves loves his office: The southern coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
The owner of Beaufort-based Sea Eagle Market was among 20 shrimp boat captains who were at work Thursday, plying the waters near Pritchards Inlet near Fripp Island.
It was opening day of the commercial shrimp trawling season, which is a big deal in a state where shrimp is the favorite Seafood and cities name festivals in honor of the delicious crustaceans.
Nets dragged the bottom of the ocean catching big early-season white roe-shrimp. When the fishing day is done, this variety will usually fetch higher prices.
“We serve a mighty God so we’re thankful everyday we get to come to work every day in the ocean,” Reaves said. “Beautiful.”
But for Reaves, the opening-day catch was below average.
He suspects recent cool weather and more northeasterly winds than usual. Southwest breezes are preferred.
The opening of the commercial shrimp trawling season means fresh shrimp will soon be more widely available at docks and markets along the coast.
Large, adult white shrimp up to 8 inches long are being harvested now, with a few browns mixed in.
“It is a big deal,” said Jeff Brunson, crustacean fisheries manager for the state Department of Natural Resource’s Office of Fisheries Management. “Shrimpers are going to be gearing up for this opening day. Essentially, for the most part, they are going to try to get out there and harvest these higher valued shrimp.”
A cold snap in December did raise concerns that this year’s harvest would be lower, Brunson said.
Short-lived white shrimp are vulnerable to cold water temperatures and unusually wet or dry summers, which can cause their numbers to fluctuate dramatically from year to year, Brunson said.
But the December cold spell, Brunson said, “didn’t seem to have any major impact on the resource itself,” even though it may have caused changes in migration or distribution.
Adequate spawning has occurred, Brunson says. That will ensure a sustainable spring harvest. And offspring from the spring spawning stock was abundant enough to support the important fall shrimp crop, Brunson added.
Shrimp is among prime catches
Shrimp is among the state’s top four fisheries — the others are oysters, fin fish and crabs — and Beaufort County plays a big role in it.
Over the past 20 years, the spring harvest of whole, head-on white roe shrimp between April and June in South Carolina has averaged 593,000 pounds, the SCDNR says. The dockside value of that catch has averaged $1.9 million.
In the last five years, the harvest has trended upward, but totals vary greatly, largely due to the weather, Brunson said. “Cold kills,” for instance, can delay the opening of the season. In 2018, when the state had a rare snowstorm, the statewide spring shrimp harvest plummeted to 24,000 pounds, with the season opener delayed until the end of June.
“Even beyond that, without cold kill events, there’s a lot of variability,” Brunson said.
The total shrimp harvest — there are spring, summer and fall seasons — has averaged 2.6 million pounds between 2018 and 2022, with a value of $8 million annually, with the vast majority white and brown shrimp.
Boats that land their catches in Beaufort County account for about 25 percent of spring and overall harvests, according to SCDNR.
“It ranges from a small skiff to 70-foot plus boat,” Brunson says of the 350-some boats in South Carolina licensed to shrimp.
Summer and fall seasons will follow the spring season. Think of it as three crops of shrimp, says Brunson.
The summer months are defined by a peak in brown shrimp, which are similar to white shrimp in size and taste. In the fall and into winter, shrimpers bring in a second crop of white shrimp, which are the offspring of the spring roe-shrimp.
Prices are a bit depressed, while fuel, though not as high as last year, still remains expensive, according to shrimpers who talked to Brunson.
But Reaves, the Beaufort-based shrimper, who was planning to stay out Thursday night and work Friday, says fresh, wild shrimp caught in local waters are in high demand.
“It’s all about building a brand and having the best quality,” Reaves said.
Shrimpers have been working in some provisional areas since April 27. The provisional areas are set up to protect spawning shrimp.
After enough spawning has occurred, as determined by sampling conducted by SCDNRC biologists, the general trawl zone opens. This year, opening day of the general season came at 8 a.m. Thursday, with shrimpers allowed to fish in waters from the beach to 3 miles out into the ocean.
Reaves saw 20 shrimp boats on opening day southwest of Fripp Island and between St. Helena and Port Royal sounds. They came from Beaufort County, Georgia and North Carolina, he said.
He’s hoping for better luck next week, when there will be a different moon cycle. But like a farmer eyeing the skies, Reaves noted that the weather forecast calls for the possibility of another northeaster to blow in this weekend.
“We don’t get to pick the weather,” Reaves said.
Number of shrimp boats
In 2023, South Carolina had 354 vessels with trawler licenses, with 116 of those vessels at least 50 feet long.