Sinking Industry: Shrimpers blame operational costs, imported seafood on decline of industry

Sinking Industry
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)

PORT ROYAL, SC (WTOC) - "It's just a struggle. It's a way of life now."

Charles Gay walks me through the Gay Fish Company, the family started reeling in the Atlantic's bounty more than six decades ago. A time when seafood kept their business above water.

"I found one of my mother's ledgers from 1948 and they were selling the shrimp for .35 a pound. They were selling the shrimp for that," said Charles.

"That's how we talk about shrimp, in boxes. A box is 100 pounds everybody knows that. So if a boat comes in with 20 boxes that is how he gets paid by the pound for his 20 boxes. He had 3-4 boxes of shrimp every week he'd haul to Tampa," said Joey Morris, a dock manager in Port Royal.

But now, shrimpers say that's a thing of the past.

"You couldn't load a truck now. Isn't no shrimp like that being caught, it's not because the shrimp ain't out there, it's because there's no boats," said Morris.

"When I was a little boy my daddy would take me to the beach, this is before they had a gate there, we go down to the beach right as the sun was coming up and there would be 30 boats out there working," said Charles.

Now you're more likely to see three. One of them, the "Intercostal Harvester".

"I've always had something to do with the shrimping industry mainly. I've been done a little bit of crabbing, but shrimping has been 99 percent of it," said Robert Gay.

"In the 80s it went up pretty good. The boats were getting as high as $6 a pound for the shrimp, so they were making pretty decent money," said Charles.

Decent money means six to eight hours of dragging a net on the bottom of the ocean floor, collecting everything from shrimp to squid and a struggle when the costs outweigh the shrimp.

"A lot of people don't' realize how much it is and how much it costs to keep it up and keep it going. If an engine breaks down that's $10,000 to rebuild it, the nets that's… $2,500to $5,000," Charles said. "It costs too much. It's not practical. I would hate to see how much a new boat would cost"

"All your rigging is triple or double, tables, everything that goes along with it is triple or double but the shrimp hasn't," said Morris.

But the dock manager in Port Royal says that's not all keeping the boats docked.

"The first thing happened to it was the imports, that killed it and it really never has come back since the imports. The next thing happened fuel got to 3.5 a gallon. The most I ever paid for fuel was .70 cents and I couldn't believe that. When I started shrimping fuel was .14 cents a gallon," said Morris.

And the battle with imports isn't over supply and demand, it's over price.

"That's what's hurt our prices. You got a big buyer, who has certain restaurants that require shrimp every week, and sometimes the local guys just can't give him enough shrimp on a regular basis," said Robert.

"Why should they give us $4, $5 a pound for them when they can get them $2 a pound, they're already processed, already frozen, all they have to do is get a container full it up and put it in their freezer and then ship them off to the stores or the restaurants," said Charles.

But the challenges don't end there. Weather plays a huge role in the success of a shrimping season as well. That's exactly what shrimpers saw during Hurricane Matthew, docks destroyed from huge waves causing the Gay Fish Company to shut down for several weeks.

"We maybe going to have some help to at least get the building gone, but the dock itself I don't know what we're going to do. We're going to have to take our time and try to put it back together," said Charles.

Some long-time shrimpers think a rebirth of the industry is near.

"I've seen younger guys in their early 20s get into it and actually run boats. They're captains. They're not just working on the boat they got familiar with it and that's what they want to do, and they're on big boats too and they do pretty well. So that's kind of good, good for the industry," said Robert.

But lifelong shrimpers say it's not something you can just give up.

"If you're in this you work hard, but it's just nothing like it used to be, it's a way of life more than anything else."

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