S.C. shrimpers hope to learn Alaska's secrets

Fishermen visit Juneau, Petersburg to glean ideas in effort revive state's shrimp industry

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2009

In Jeff Toomer's version of Southeast, he enjoys warm breezes, tidal marshes and Spanish moss hanging from palmetto trees. Since flying 3,000 miles to Alaska's Southeast on Wednesday, he's been surrounded by freezing temperatures, mountains and snow - all pretty much unheard of in his region of South Carolina known as the lowcountry.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Toomer is a commercial shrimper from Hilton Head, S.C. He's one of five South Carolina shrimpers and a state fisheries expert on a mission to reinvigorate South Carolina's shrimp industry with the know-how that helped revive Alaska's vibrant seafood industry. A few decades ago, cheaper, imported farm-raised fish started undercutting wild Alaska fish at markets.

A flood of similar farm-raised shrimp in 2001 combined with last year's soaring fuel costs, a decade-long real estate boom that ate up waterfront and environmental groups' opposition has decimated the shrimping fleet.

Toomer talks about the dock where he ties up his trawler to illustrate the point.

"There used to be 30 boats working out of where I'm tying up now. Now there's just three of us this year," said the 41-year-old shrimper.

South Carolina issued 915 commercial trawling licenses in 2000, but only 429 in 2007, according to a state publication. And most of those license holders aren't active, the shrimpers said.

In 1987, the South Carolina commercial shrimp industry harvested $11.9 million worth of shrimp, according to a state-commissioned study. In 2006, that value was only $6.5 million, according to a 2007 report. The comparison is not adjusted for inflation.

Amber Von Harten, a fisheries specialist with the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium with ties to Clemson University's extension program, explained her rationale behind organizing the trip.

"Alaska salmon kind of went through this same process, a flood of imports, farmed-raised fish," she said. "(Alaska fishermen) kind of became experts in my opinion of pulling themselves by the bootstraps, making the industry work."

In the lobby of Alaska Glacier Seafood Co. in Auke Bay on Thursday, Von Harten held up a yellow bumper sticker.

"Look familiar?" she asked as the shrimpers waited to meet with company president Mike Erickson.

It read "Friends don't let friends eat farmed fish." A lot of South Carolina bumpers carry the same slogan, but with imported shrimp instead of farmed fish. The shrimpers are hoping the parallels don't end there.

The effort isn't just about saving the livelihood of the 120 or so shrimpers that remain active in South Carolina, it's a piece of coastal South Carolina's identity. Shrimp in coastal South Carolina are woven into the culture the way salmon are in Alaska. Many small towns of the South hold annual celebrations championing their agricultural roots; one county celebrates its Watermelon Festival, coastal Beaufort County celebrates with the Shrimp Festival.

Shrimp trawlers are part of many government and commercial logos down there, but it's gradually becoming a historic nod - like the façades of antebellum plantation homes - instead of a reflection of modern times.

The group spent all day Thursday and half of Friday in Juneau, meeting with local fisheries experts in the industry, academia and state government. They discussed a wide range of topics, including the nitty-gritty of fishing and processing, fuel saving tips, the latest in marine technology, pros and cons of different business models and government grant programs. They even gabbed a bit about similarities between Gov. Sarah Palin and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

During the discussions, it became apparent that two major areas where South Carolina lags is in the level of organization in the seafood industry and a willingness of government to support it with low-interest loans, grants and even processing facilities.

For example, Petersburg, the shrimpers' next stop, built a successful community cold storage facility in 2006 with public funds as part of an industry revitalization program. The South Carolina group knew of a one county back home that had worked with an economic development organization to build a processing facility, but failed.

"The banks wouldn't touch it. It was too high risk an investment," Von Harten said.

Wayne Magwood, president of the South Carolina Shrimpers Association, said Friday that part of his efforts when he gets home will be to rally state legislators, the industry and business-minded parties to take a more active role.

"Save the industry and the heritage of the fishermen," Magwood said.

The group is headed home this afternoon.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.

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