Shrimpers fear Shem Creek may go out of business

Shrimper Paul Richardson
Shrimper Paul Richardson
Shrimper Jay Sewell walks thorugh a shrimping facility on Shem Creek
Shrimper Jay Sewell walks thorugh a shrimping facility on Shem Creek

MOUNT PLEASANT, SC (WCSC) - Shrimpers on Mount Pleasant's Shem Creek say the flood of imported shrimp into Charleston may soon put them out of business.

"All the restaurants and grocery stores are buying the imported shrimp," said Jay Sewell of Magwood's Seafood. "We're just trying to hold it together the best we can."

While the price difference between imported shrimp and locally caught shrimp from Magwood's is just a few cents per pound, shrimp exporters from Asia and Europe have a big advantage over local shrimpers -- their shrimp are farm-raised, mass-produced and available year-round because shrimp can be exported from all over the world.

As a result, many Lowcountry restaurants feeling the economic pinch are able to order mass quantities and market them to locals and tourists alike during off seasons or seasons that are not as fruitful for local shrimpers.

While it may save them hundreds of dollars month, restaurants and grocers who practice this method are, according to Sewell, bringing an early end to a Lowcountry tradition.

Sewell says as recent as a decade ago, Shem Creek was home to more than 70 boats; Magwood's owned eight.

"[Each boat] would sell about $3,000 a day in shrimp," said Sewell, who blames unbalanced competition with shrimp importers for Magwood's having to scale back their operation to only one boat. "It's rough!"

Other shrimpers agree. Sewell says his boat is one of just seven active boats making him, as fellow shrimper Paul Richardson calls him, "one of the lucky ones."

"We just struggle along, trying to keep the boats paid up, a little bit of fuel in the tank and keep food in the house is about all we can do now," said Richardson. "It kills us."

Many of the shrimpers, says Sewell, are leaving the area and in turn taking hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the local economy with them.

"A bunch are headed to Florida and North Carolina where there is still fishing going on in some parts," said Sewell. "We used to employ dozens of folks per boat and in our shop, but now there is just a handful. [Our employees] used to spend all their money in Shem Creek and throughout Charleston. That helped other businesses survive as well as our own."

Sewell says the best thing consumers can do is buy local, but not at restaurants. Sewell says the only way to guarantee your seafood is local is to go to a preparation shop, such as Magwood's or Rauls, and buy it on the spot yourself.

This way, says Sewell, more boats will stay in business, and Shem Creek will continue to exist.

"It only takes a few more boats for something to happen to them and you won't be able to get fresh shrimp around here anymore," said Sewell. "It's sad."

©2010 WCSC. All rights reserved.