A South Carolina Shrimper Stays Afloat Capt. Wayne Magwood, a third-generation shrimper in Charleston, S.C., has run a successful market for the past 40 years. He relies on local restaurants and loyal customers to stay in business, battling intense foreign competition.
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A South Carolina Shrimper Stays Afloat

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A South Carolina Shrimper Stays Afloat

A South Carolina Shrimper Stays Afloat

A South Carolina Shrimper Stays Afloat

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Americans love shrimp. Whether from the bottomless buffets at Red Lobster or out of frozen bags bought at the grocery store, the U.S. consumes more shrimp than any other seafood.

But that doesn't mean U.S. shrimpers are swimming in money. Almost 90 percent of the shrimp eaten in the U.S. comes from farms overseas — imported from China, Indonesia and Thailand. So how do American shrimpers stay in business?

Capt. Wayne Magwood may have the answer. He's a third-generation shrimper in Charleston, S.C., and for the past 40 years, he's run a successful market by the docks in Shem Creek, a long-time hub for shrimping.

"There's only about six boats left out of Shem Creek, where back in the '80s there were probably 50 or 60," Magwood says, sitting in his captain's chair, foot on the helm.

Other shrimpers in the area have been knocked out of business by a number of factors, including rising property values along the water, fluctuating fuel costs and an abundant supply of overseas shrimp that keeps prices down.

Magwood's trawler, the Winds of Fortune, leaves the dock each morning in the dark, before 5 a.m. He gazes out over the water, scanning for marker lights and other boats as he navigates through the channel. It's October — white shrimp season — and Magwood wears two flannel shirts to protect himself from the chilly ocean air.

He chats with other captains on the radio — about the temperature, the size of the waves and about where they might go today.

"In the old days, they didn't share information much. It was kind of cut-throat — everybody was out for themselves," Magwood says. "But now there's not many of us left, so we pretty well work together."

'A Dangerous Occupation'

Three miles off shore, the crew readies the nets, using a giant, noisy winch to lower the 45-foot outriggers on either side of the boat. The crew this morning includes Vincent Vierra, 29; Vasa Tarvin, 18; and John Zillman, 36. It's still dark out, a fog rising off the water. They work in silence, cigarettes dangling from their lips.

"The door line just popped," Magwood says, pointing out to the tip of the outriggers, where two ancient-looking doors dangle into the waves. Those are the otter boards, and they help spread the net along the bottom of the ocean.

The crew scrambles to fix the problem, but in doing so, Zillman accidentally steps back into the net as it's sliding over the side of the boat. A chain wraps around his ankle, tightening quickly and almost dragging him over the side. The other crew members grab him and hold on tight.

"Get your foot out of there," Magwood yells from the winch.

They manage to squeeze Zillman's foot from his boot, and he sits to examine his leg.

"Did you hurt your ankle?" Magwood asks.

"No, I'm good," Zillman says.

"It's a dangerous occupation," Magwood says, once they have retied the line and dropped 120 feet of nets into the water. "A lot of ways to get hurt on a boat and, you know, a lot of people fall off and drown. It's pretty dangerous."

The crew then files back into the deckhouse to make eggs and grits on a small stove. A coffee pot slides back and forth as the boat rocks in the waves. They eat in a cloud of cigarette smoke, and then they watch some of a movie, Hellboy II, before passing out in bunks, boots still on their feet.

The next three hours are a waiting game. Magwood can't help but recall his best day, five years ago.

"They opened shrimp season, and the shrimp were big. The first day we caught 9,000 pounds, one day, all big shrimp. The boat made $27,000 in one day. That was the best haul we ever made. Beautiful, beautiful day."

'We're Surviving'

And as for today's haul, they find out three hours later.

Using the winches, they bring the nets back onto the boat. Stingrays, flounder, a baby shark, minnows, croakers and shrimp spill onto the deck — a huge pile heaving like a beating heart.

"Not as pretty as I want it to be, but it's maybe at least 200 pounds of big ones," Magwood says.

But this is just the first drag of the day, and he still has time to catch more. The day before, the boat brought in more than 600 pounds of large and medium-sized shrimp, which Magwood says made about $1,500. That got divided among the boat and dock crews, minus the cost of fuel.

"We make good money at it," Vierra says, "Sometimes."

Vierra is Magwood's stepson and has been shrimping for 11 years now, often six days a week.

"Some years are better than others," he says. "Wayne put four kids through college, and I got two myself. We're surviving."

He says each crew member gets a 10 percent cut, which can translate to anywhere between $15,000 and $30,000 a year.

"We're either ignorant or stubborn. I don't know which," Magwood jokes. "We're just hoping it will turn around if we can hang in there long enough — that the price will go up with everything going local. Most of your shrimpers are selling to restaurants."

Getting The Word Out

On a chalkboard back at his market, Magwood keeps a list of the Charleston-area restaurants that serve his shrimp. These restaurants — along with loyal customers — are the only thing keeping many South Carolina shrimpers in business.

Magwood is the president this year of the South Carolina Shrimpers Association. The group aims to promote local, ocean-caught shrimp. Its Web site lists the restaurants, caterers and docks where you can find their shrimp.

"There are a lot of restaurants that might buy a little bit of local shrimp and then they can advertise, saying it's local," he says. "And then they might buy a million pounds of foreign shrimp."

Another goal of the organization is to repair what Magwood calls a long history of bad public relations.

"We try to do some good PR, get out to the public that we're not raping the ocean. We're just out there to make a living, trying to provide a resource for the community," he says.

Half-jokingly, Magwood refers to himself as a public relations officer for South Carolina shrimp. Since his business is surviving, he feels it's his duty to do whatever he can to help other shrimpers. To that end, he takes out schoolchildren and community leaders on his boat. He also takes people like Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel and Mike Rowe from the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs. He says he'll take anyone if it helps get the word out about ocean-caught shrimp.

"Hopefully it'll get out, and we'll be able to survive," he says. "And hopefully we can get some young blood in this industry because they're not many of us left."

The Winds of Fortune ends the day with 600 pounds of shrimp. It's destined for restaurants and customers, some of them already waiting on the docks with empty coolers when the boat arrives.