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Staying afloat

TWO LOCAL EXPERTS GIVE US AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE SHRIMP INDUSTRY


Story by Michaela Satterfield + Photos by Megan Goheen

Tales from the shrimp industry as told through the lens of past and present shrimp trawler captains paint a picture of the ebb and flow of the trade.

That lens is literal for former captain Stephen Shoemaker. He looks back on the glory days of shrimping through a collection of home videos he filmed with a camera purchased in the ‘80s. In true home video fashion, Shoemaker’s grainy clips of everyday life on the water depict the gritty nature of shrimping in a way modern, clean-cut videos never could.

His time in the industry dates back even further than when he purchased the camera, to 1972. After more than 20 years in the business, Shoemaker eventually left it behind for other ventures. He says shrimping was no longer a viable way to make a living.

Shoemaker cites an increase in imports as the main factor that led to the downfall of the local shrimp industry. Simply put, pricier local shrimp was unable to compete with cheaper imported shrimp. He says 15 percent of shrimp was imported when he first entered the industry. By the time he left in 1994, the percentages had flipped – 85 percent of shrimp was imported.

On top of this, rising fuel prices and increased regulations made shrimping more difficult. It was no longer worth the cost and effort.

“You cannot make money in the shrimp industry unless you are doing everything yourself,” Shoemaker says.

Diversify to survive

Like a lone shrimp trawler plugging away through the sea, Larry Toomer is a current captain who is continually finding ways to make his shrimp business work in today’s economy. The key, he says, is diversifying.

“Diversifying was the only way I saw that we could stay in business because of the imported shrimp,” Toomer says.

Toomer’s involvement with the seafood business began early, as he was born into it. He and his wife, Tina Toomer, took over the iconic Bluffton Oyster Factory in the early ‘90s. Twelve years ago the family opened a restaurant: Toomer’s Family Seafood House. Rather than selling shrimp to someone else, like Shoemaker did during his time as a shrimper, Toomer sells straight to customers.

It’s not all shrimp, though. Diversifying extends to the catches. If it’s a bad shrimp season, Toomer is able to fall back on oysters or crabs. Between the retail market, the restaurant, catering and selling more than just shrimp, Toomer has kept the business running despite the challenges.

Looking ahead

Toomer says his main goal is to do what he can now to keep the business going after he is gone. The threats that face the industry are not lost on him. Rising costs for supplies such as fuel, oil, nets, cables and engine parts are all concerns. In addition, finding crew members is increasingly difficult.

Working on a shrimp trawler is “not-so-glamorous” work, Toomer says. The job is vastly different than a typical office job. In addition to being physically taxing, crew members must be willing to sacrifice a normal life for spending multiple days at a time on the water.

“It isn’t as easy as it looks,” Shoemaker says. “The shrimp just don’t jump on the back deck.”

For Toomer, trading an ordinary life for ample time at sea is worth it. The opportunity to spend time in nature on a boat is one of the benefits of working in the industry. Shrimping serves as “mental therapy” for Toomer.

“It helps me to deal with the rest of the world,” Toomer says.

From a broader perspective, Toomer says keeping the fishing industry alive is essential for the country overall. When local industries thrive, residents of the United States are free from depending on other countries to supply food.

Toomer tells of a recent visit to a city that was formerly one of the largest sources of shrimp in the area: Thunderbolt, Georgia. This time, he says, there was only one shrimp trawler on the water. Sights like this show that the future of the shrimp industry depends on other dedicated captains and crew members to join.

“The size of the fleet every year is less and less,” Toomer says.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A SHRIMP TRAWLER CAPTAIN

A fresh start

Days on a shrimp trawler start bright and early. Shoemaker typically left at 4 a.m. Toomer says the latest takeoff time is 5 a.m. Before taking off, the captain and crew members must stock up on fuel, ice and any groceries they will need for the trip. Sometimes trips can last several days.

“I would always tell my crew,” Shoemaker says, “‘When we leave the dock, be prepared to be gone a week.’”

Finding the hot spot

The crew tries to arrive at its shrimping spot of choice by daylight. Toomer says the state regulates when shrimpers can drag nets, which is typically from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

At some point they may use a sample net. This smaller net can be picked up to get an idea of the possible catches in the area without picking up the main nets. The crew will then know if they’re in a good spot or if they need to move on. Some days they will keep the boat in the same spot all day. Other days require trying many different locations, Toomer says. Shoemaker notes that they never radioed other boats to let them know about a good shrimping spot. “Fishermen are the best liars in the world,” Shoemaker says. “There’s a reason for it.”

The going gets tougher

After dragging the nets for a while, the crew picks them up and dumps the catch. Then they begin sorting through it with a cull rake. Toomer says this is the “back-breaking” part of shrimping. They have to throw out anything that isn’t shrimp. Finally, the crew washes the shrimp and ices it to keep it fresh.

That’s a wrap

If the crew isn’t staying out, they load up the rigs and ride back. The ride back could be two to three hours long.

If they are staying out a few days, the crew may have someone on a smaller boat come to the shrimp trawler to pick up the catch and bring it in.

Selling shrimp elsewhere, like Shoemaker did, comes with a few additional steps. He says they typically unloaded the shrimp on Friday. If selling to a restaurant, the restaurant would provide a place to tie up the boat, as well as ice and fuel. The restaurant would then have first dibs on the catch. LL