Southern shrimpers work through dangerous conditions

MOUNT PLEASANT, SC (WCSC) - It's the deadliest job in America.  Workers in the commercial fishing industry have the highest occupational fatality rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's because of the winches and the power -- the ropes popping," Shrimp trawler captain Wayne Magwood says.  "When a rope pops, it could cut your leg off and anything can happen."

As a third-generation fisherman, Magwood shrimps from his boat, Winds of Fortune, out of Shem Creek.  He says he understands the dangers that lurk within the boat.

From 2000 to 2009, 504 fishermen were killed while on the job.  The fatality rate in 2011 was 35 times higher than the rate for all U.S. workers.   The majority of the deaths was a result of drowning, followed by injuries sustained on board – mostly by the mechanical deck winch.

"That thing there has no feelings whatsoever.  It will not stop," Winds of Fortune deckhand Joel Ackerman says.  "I've seen a guy's arm wound up in it.  It'll get it."

While Ackerman has never been injured by the winch, he almost became the victim of the sea itself when he fell overboard years ago.

"All I could do is tread water," he says.  "That guy couldn't hear anything so I just waited 'til I seen lights again and that was a good feeling."

Another deckhand, Darrin Johnson, says he once got his fingers caught in a rope, in an injury that ripped off his fingernail.

In addition to the physical dangers, there is also the fear of not hauling in enough shrimp to sustain business.

"There used to be about a hundred boats out of Shem Creek and now there's only like 12 maybe," Magwood says.

He says the higher cost of fuel, as well as an influx of cheaper imported shrimp from Indonesia, China and Vietnam, is hurting the local shrimping industry.

"I wouldn't want to drink the water from Vietnam, much less the shrimp they raise in the ponds -- why do you want to eat that stuff?"  Magwood says.

Despite the constantly looming danger, the job is worth it to these men.

"I just love the industry," Magwood says.  "I don't know what I'd do without it."

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