Our waters are home to a wealth of fascinating animals, but perhaps no creature has expanded our region’s culture like shrimp.
STORY BY BARRY KAUFMAN + PHOTOGRAPHY BY LISA STAFF
If there is one single sentence nearly everyone can agree with, it is this: Eat local shrimp. We may not all agree on the best beach on the island, or the best secret shortcut around the Sea Pines circle during tourist season, but all agree that there is something magical in our waters.
The enduring appeal of local shrimp goes far beyond the plate. It’s not just their delicately sweet, briny flavor. It’s about the sight of local trawlers heading toward that horizon. It’s about a way of life, a tradition that goes back generations. It’s about the indelible part that these creatures play in our culture.
They may be small, but around here shrimp are a very big deal. And the locals here are proof of that.
This author paints a portrait of the local shrimp industry in her new book.
Mike and Scott MacDonald were shrimpers. Like so many others, their living was coaxed from the waves, one haul at a time. And like so many others, their stories were largely unheard until Beverly Jennings came around.
“The MacDonalds told me that it’s the best high you’ll ever get when you get a good catch, but when you have a bad catch, it’s the worst,” she said. Still, for the two brothers who sailed out of Buckingham Landing, the boat that they built in their backyard is “the best office you can ever have.”
And the MacDonalds are just two of a hundred of shrimpers whose stories Jennings shared in her book, Shrimp Tales: Small Bites of History. Across the span of 5 1/2 years, Jennings crisscrossed the Lowcountry to speak to legends of the local shrimping industry, from Sally Chaplin, daughter of the famed Sheriff McTeer and wife to lifelong shrimper Jack Chaplin, to Larry Toomer, who picked up his family legacy at age 19 and ran with it.
Across 320 pages packed with photos of the Lowcountry’s past and present, Jennings paints a portrait of the shrimp industry, where it’s been and where it’s going. Beyond just documenting the lives of the people who have given so much to our local industry, Jennings is using the book to give back, with proceeds benefiting the South Carolina Seafood Alliance.
“Some were a little reluctant,” she said. “But when they realized I wanted to preserve their history and give the funds to something that benefits them so much, they couldn’t have been more helpful. They’ve become really good friends.”
The roots of the book came when Jennings was asked to create content for three walls at the Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center, now called the Dick and Sharon Stewart Maritime Center. “I had all this information, and there wasn’t a lot on shrimping at the time,” she said. “I had one wall on shrimp and I had talked to 35 shrimpers.”
Those 35 shrimpers passed on a wealth of information, and Jennings realized she had the makings of a book. “I got a lot of help,” she admits. “New World Cartography made the wonderful maps for the inside of the front and back covers. I interviewed about 100 fishermen in the end. They love what they do.”
Her book, which can be found at outlets all over the Lowcountry as well as at shrimptales.org, is already getting attention. “One of my friends said I should be on Walter Edgar’s journal, so I sent him a note,” she said. The note paid off, and Jennings was recently featured on the famed NPR show.
“He is the nicest man. Really nice.”
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All proceeds go to the South Carolina Seafood Alliance
When she first began writing what would become her book, Shrimp Tales, Beverly Jennings merely wanted to tell a story. This story was one worth telling, of an industry that once defined our area waterways and has faced historic challenges. It’s a story of a way of life that’s in peril.
Somewhere along the way Jennings decided that just telling the story of the struggle wasn’t going to be enough. She wanted to jump in and aid the fight.
“I wanted to give funds back. I wanted to preserve the history and help out. So I would ask how I could do that when I was interviewing shrimpers, and they felt like the South Carolina Seafood Alliance was the best bet.”
Founded in Mount Pleasant but since growing to encompass the East Coast, the SC Seafood Alliance has become a massive force for positive change in our waters. It has sent lobbyists to Washington to help draft protective legislation. But on the ground you’ll find the SCFA working to keep fertilizer out of water, monitoring draining and sewage and serving as advocates for local seafood.
“Really one of the big things is advocating that people buy local, and explaining the reason it’s so important,” she said. “Because imported seafood can be dangerous.”
This third-generation shrimper continues his family legacy.
Even if Jeff Toomer hadn’t proven himself at a young age to be preternaturally talented at fishing, odds are good he would have found himself out there on a boat at some point. As a part of the legendary Toomer family, Jeff represents a line that stretches back to the earliest parts of the Lowcountry’s modern history. Each branch of this family tree has grown more entrenched with the waters around us, and for Jeff, claiming his part of that legacy just came naturally.
“I guess I really enjoyed it, and I was good at it. That’s what I was told,” he said. “I never thought I was good at it. But I was good enough to keep up with the changes.”
Those changes included a bottom-up upheaval of the entire shrimping industry, particularly around here, that has happened over the last few decades. As cheap, imported farm-raised shrimp crowded out the market for the old shrimpers, and as Hilton Head Island transformed from a secluded barrier island to a premier resort destination, the Toomers weathered one of the biggest changes their industry had seen.
For Jeff Toomer, keeping ahead of those changes was just a matter of getting outside of his comfort zone.
“Two years in I decided to put a freezer on my boat and got a lot of negative kickback,” he said. As a relatively young 31-year-old shrimper surrounded by fellow captains decades his senior, his radical innovation may have been scorned, but it was effective. “It turned out to be 100 times better because I would leave so many shrimp out there before. I could go out with an ice boat for 4-5 days.”
That forward thinking helped Jeff keep sailing when so many other shrimpers had to call it a career. As he put it, “Our boats aren’t that fast, but they’re built to withstand almost any kind of weather.”
And withstand they have, through the changing currents of the shrimp industry, the evolving face of the Lowcountry around them and the headaches and hassles that have plagued shrimpers since the dawn of time. There’s the odd outbreak of black gill, part of a rising tide of outbreaks that Jeff has seen swell over the last 20 years. There’s the slow shifting of the season, which used to run from September through October but now runs closer to the warmer months. And, there’s the simple fact that most people don’t know well enough to choose local shrimp when they have the chance.
Through it all Jeff Toomer has persevered, helping to carry his family legacy forward. It’s a testament to his skill as a shrimper, born of both his natural talent and his genetic lineage, as well as his deep abiding love for what he does.
“I just love being on the water,” he said. “It’s you and nature, and you have to try to figure out what nature’s telling you.”
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A life well-lived on the water
Catching shrimp isn’t just about making a living. It’s a spiritual experience. Few understand the transcendence of this calling and the beauty of working these waters like Jeff Toomer.
“I think the most fascinating thing I’ve seen is when you have fronts come through with waterspouts. We had one not that long ago that looked like a dark wave rolling off the land,” he said. “Being on the water you see things as far as the eye can see.”
Despite being someone who spent his childhood crabbing, shrimping and playing aboard a 10-foot aluminum boat, and his adulthood shrimping aboard a pair of beautiful shrimping vessels, Jeff Toomer simply can’t get enough of the water.
“It was a way of life. We just always had that,” he said. “When you’re out on the water around here, you have to memorize when the tide goes out and where the oyster beds are; you have a spot in your brain that memorizes where all this is.”
It’s a love that he’s passing on to his son, Logan, as he comes up in the family business. “He’s working with me, and I’m training him, if you’d like to say that,” he said with a laugh. “I want to make sure he knows everything he needs to know, but I know in the back of my mind that’s not possible,” he said. “I was turned loose at a very young age, so I have a lot of different experiences under my belt.”
This shrimp farming pioneer is passionate about protecting our waterways.
For years, decades even, Al Stokes was the central figure of Waddell Mariculture Center. Spending his days traversing its acres of growout ponds, research labs and shrimp production systems, he was the driving force behind a facility that did more for local fish than most folks will ever know.
These days his mandate is a little narrower. When he’s not consulting on various projects that call for his singular expertise, he maintains a slightly less sprawling 7.5 acres of vegetable gardens and South Carolina wild.
“If I’d have known it was so much fun, I would have retired earlier,” he said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of yard work, but my life is a lot freer. If I don’t go pick up limbs after a storm, the trees aren’t going to die.”
It’s a little less pressure than his previous life at Waddell, but he doesn’t look back on those days with an ounce of regret. Instead he takes well-earned pride in the work the organization did on his watch. Even looking just at shrimp, it was a pioneer, performing the first high-intensity shrimp production studies ever. “Most places that were producing shrimp were using a water exchange program,” he said. “We started adding aeration to reduce the amount of water used and began working with a feed company to develop better feed.”
It may seem simple now, but the idea of adding aeration to a shrimp farm was radical at the time and led Waddell toward greater innovations in shrimp farming. By the 1990s Waddell was growing shrimp in a biofloc based system that used helpful microbes to manage the water on a biological level, helping stabilize the environment and letting shrimp thrive. Adding a roof and locating pathogen-free lines of shrimp helped fight diseases that were ruining crops. These indoor shrimp farms have allowed for operations all over the country. As a consultant, Stokes still gets to see the fruits of his labor spread.
“One of my favorite shrimp growers is out of Montana,” he said. “People can’t believe you can find a shrimp farm there, but he sells about 100 pounds a shrimp a week.”
These innovations came at a great time, as yields of wild-caught shrimp continue to dwindle even as demand skyrockets. “It used to be we averaged three pounds per person, now it’s up to four,” he said. “The demand exceeds the supply of what the U.S. can produce.”
His work with the center may be over, but his drive is still helping shrimp farming reach new levels. Locally he’s stayed as busy as ever protecting our local waters through the May River Watershed Action Committee and the Open Land Trust.
“My passion is protecting our waterways,” he said, “and these estuaries are special and require our protection.”
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The gate at Waddell Mariculture Center honors the memory of Collin Stokes
Young Collin Stokes, named by his parents Al and Shannon Stokes for the Colleton River, grew up at Waddell Mariculture Center. The young man would walk the ponds with his dad, checking on the health of the resident red fish, shrimp and other sea life, helping to maintain the sophisticated arrays of pumps and filters that kept the ponds clean and marveling at the art and science that makes this place special.
“He and I were so close. He grew up here,” recalled Al. When Collin passed away in 2015, his parents were devastated. “I was almost planning on leaving (Waddell).”
Al stayed on, pushing through his grief, and one day he found a way to honor his son’s memory at a place that meant so much to him.
“The entrance to the center was a chain-link fence, and I thought, ‘I’d like something nicer,’” said Al. “I thought we could get a nice gate built for him, since he spent more time there than anyone else.”
People rallied around the idea, with locals like Dave Harter helping to raise roughly $40,000 to build a gorgeous metal gate at the entrance to Waddell Mariculture Center. The gate was built by Bluffton artist Rhonda Fantozzi. Between twisting spires of wrought iron, columns of tabby contain shells handpicked by the Stokes family to remember Collin.
“The community came together, and that meant everything to me,” said Al. “There are some really good people in this community.”