Hard rains have shrimpers coming up short

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - The sun's just peeking over the horizon as the Lady Eva makes her way out of Shem Creek and into Charleston Harbor and beyond, escorted by dozens of sea birds looking for an early meal.

Capt. Rocky Magwood is at home out here, trawling the waters around Charleston for his livelihood, but he and his crew have had a tough season.

"It's been a really bad shrimping season," he said. "All through the summer; all the way up until now. We've been starving, not hardly catching anything."

Magwood says he can head out and only pull up a couple hundred pounds of shrimp in a day and burn through 150 gallons of fuel. The season has been hardly profitable.

The pulls Magwood and crew dump onto the deck of the Lady Ava are hardly the size of those depicted in movies like Forrest Gump. At times there are hundreds of shrimp caught in the nets. Other times, there are only a couple handfuls.

Shrimping these waters off the South Carolina coast can be tough, and this year has been especially tough.

"Probably about the middle of June we noticed that something was wrong and we were getting all of the bad rains," Magwood said. "We didn't even get any brown shrimp this season."

June was particularly rainy with 13.32 inches falling through the month. A staggering 7.69 inches of that fell in a 10-day stretch from June 2-11.

"Where you had big drainage areas, all that rain that we had in the summertime just kind of flushed everything down," said Larry DeLancey with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Crustacean Monitoring Program.

Usually, rain is a good thing for shrimpers. It flushes the crop down out of their river nurseries and into the saltier estuaries closer to the ocean. That's where the grow and are caught by shrimpers like Magwood.

But the summer's heavy rains likely pushed the shrimp out of the estuaries and farther out to sea and away from Magwood's nets.

It's real tough at home. It's tough to make your bills," said Magwood. "You've got to go and do some other odds and ends to make a dollar. Right now I'm going oystering to pay a fuel bill."

{}In August, Gov. Nikki Haley asked that the state be declared a federal disaster area for farmers who suffered crop losses due to the heavy rains. As a result, they are eligible for low-interest government loans, but so far shrimpers who farm the ocean have not been given that same assistance.

"We did it before," said DeLancey. "We had a cold kill in 2001 and they went that route and they got low-interest loans then. You know, they might be able to get some grants - that's up to the politics."

But that's a fight far removed from Shem Creek, the Wando and the Ashley.

"I'm hoping that it will bounce back because this is what I love to do and it's in my blood," Magwood said. "It's hard to give it up. This is what I've done every day of my life since I've been old enough."

As any seasoned sailor will say, each day is different and one day's empty nets can lead to the next day's bumper crop. If Mother Nature cooperates, there's also hope for the future.

"Even if there are still small shrimp now, if they make it through the winter they could have a decent crop next year," said DeLancey. "Just stay optimistic; I know it's hard to do that."

Magwood and other commercial shrimpers have another couple months of shrimping left in the season.

That means those who are up before the sun might catch a glimpse of Magwood as the sun breaks over the horizon heading back out into the harbor, out past Morris Lighthouse. As the sun edges up the birds take up their places, dozens of them following Lady Ava out into open waters, and a dolphin or two surface off the port side and the crew is hard at work.

He's a shrimp boat captain and this is his office, his home.

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