America’s favorite seafood is back in season at South Carolina docks and markets.
Commercial shrimp trawling opened in all legal South Carolina waters at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) biologists are optimistic about the coming season.
“So far we’ve seen indications that it should be a good year,” said Mel Bell, director of SCDNR’s Office of Fisheries Management. “Of course, after establishing the opening date, based on the condition of the resource, we have no control over how things will go. The success of the season will be up to the hard work of the fishermen and the environmental conditions they encounter throughout the year.”
The present season comes on the heels of an unusual year. The 2016 shrimp season was preceded by a record fall flooding event, bookended by two abnormally warm winters, and included multiple tropical systems, including Hurricane Matthew. SCDNR models predicted high shrimp numbers in the spring, but ultimately the 2016 commercial harvest and value were on par with the ten-year averages – commercial trawlers harvested just shy of two million pounds (measured heads-off) with a $7.8 million dockside value. By comparison, shrimpers netted a little over two million pounds of shrimp worth more than $8.5 million in 2015.
Shrimp season normally opens in full in mid- to late-May, sometimes after the opening of eight smaller provisional areas in the state’s outer waters. This year those provisional areas opened on April 20, allowing shrimpers to begin harvesting while still protecting most of the spawning population closer to shore.
The opening date for shrimp season changes from year to year based on the conditions of the shrimp themselves.
“It all depends on what the shrimp are doing – numbers, growth, and development,” Bell said. SCDNR biologists head out aboard both commercial and agency vessels to study and sample the crustaceans, and one of the things they’re looking for is evidence that a majority of female white shrimp have already spawned. Opening the season too soon – and allowing trawlers to catch females that are still carrying eggs – could reduce the size of the fall white shrimp crop, which are the offspring of the spring white shrimp.
“The results of our recent surveys are encouraging for another good spring roe crop,” said wildlife biologist Jeff Brunson. “In April we caught over two times as many shrimp on our sampling trips as the ten-year average, and the size of the shrimp was fairly typical for this time of year.”
South Carolina’s commercial shrimp calendar has three peak periods. In the spring, shrimpers capitalize on the influx of roe white shrimp, large, early-season shrimp that generally fetch higher prices and generate the most value for fishing effort. The summer months are defined by a peak in brown shrimp, which are similar to white shrimp in size and taste. In the fall and into winter, shrimpers once again bring white shrimp to the docks – this time the offspring of the spring roe shrimp.
“We hope the early-season forecasts translate into a successful year and encourage folks to get out and support the local industry,” said Bell.