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

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Remember those days when shrimp cocktails were so skimpy and you'd only get five or six in a glass? Well, now you can enjoy as many shrimp as you want.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Endless shrimp at Red Lobster. The only time of year to enjoy all the�

LYDEN: The U.S. now consumes more shrimp per capita than any other seafood. But about 90 percent of that shrimp comes from farms overseas. So, how do American shrimpers stay in business? WEEKEND EDITION producer Thomas Pierce joins us. He recently returned from a trip on a shrimp boat off the coast of South Carolina. Hi there, Thomas.


LYDEN: You know, how much shrimp are we talking about? How much is the American market compared to everything else?

PIERCE: The American market is pretty small compared to what we're bringing in in imports. We brought in about 1.2 billion pounds of shrimp last year and the American market is just a quarter of that. So, even if you're living down in the Gulf, if you order those shrimp and grits, you're probably going to find imported shrimp on that plate.

LYDEN: So, it's got to be a pretty hard way to make a living.

PIERCE: It's pretty hard. They're not making nearly as much money as they used to. And, look, I'm from South Carolina and I was pretty interested in this, so I went down to Shem Creek, which is Charleston, South Carolina, and it's a long-time hub for shrimpers to see who's left and how they're making it. And that's where I met Wayne Magwood. He's the owner of a market there. It's been open for 40 years. He calls himself the public relations officer for South Carolina shrimp, and he took me out on his trawler, The Winds of Fortune.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #1: Good morning, captain. We think your ETA to the Cooper Bridge is�

PIERCE: So, it's 5 a.m. and we just left the dock. Wayne Magwood leans back in his captain's chair, radio in his hand. He's wearing two flannel shirts because it's chilly out this morning. There's salt on the windows and that obscures what is already a dark view, tiny lights twinkling out ahead.

Captain WAYNE MAGWOOD (The Winds of Fortune): That's my brother's boat. He just left up there.

PIERCE: He navigates through the dark, chatting with other captains on the radio about the temperature, the size of the waves and yesterday's rain.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #2: �had rain jacket filled up with water with my phone in it. She went blip, blip, blip and that was it.

PIERCE: They also talk about where they might go today: north or south along the coast of Charleston.

Capt. MAGWOOD: In the old days they didn't share information much. You know, it was kind of cutthroat � everybody was out for themselves. But now there's not many of us left, so we pretty well work together.

PIERCE: Wayne knows about the old days. He's a third-generation shrimper.

Capt. MAGWOOD: I've been a shrimp boat all my life, since I was four years old. Me and my brother and my dad. And then when I graduated from high school, we started running boats, my brother and I. We'd take turns being captain. Eventually my dad bought another boat. And so my brother had one, I had one and he bought another one. Dad had one, two brothers and then my little brother came along and he bought another one.

PIERCE: Basically, every male Magwood had a boat back then. Up until the late '80s you might have seen 60 shrimp trawlers operating out of Shem Creek. Today, he says, there are more like six.

(Soundbite of boat)

PIERCE: We're north of Charleston now, just three miles offshore. The sun's still not up, but it's time to put out the nets. The crew works in silence, cigarettes dangling from their lips as they use a giant wench to lower 45-foot outriggers on either side of the boat. There's 29-year-old Vinnie Vierra, 18-year-old Vasa Tarvin and John Zillman, the newest crewmember - he's 36.

(Soundbite of crew working)

PIERCE: They swing two ancient-looking doors out over the water.

Capt. MAGWOOD: Those are called the otter boards and it rides there on the bottom and it spreads the net open. This chain in front of the net is called a tickler chain, like, tickles the shrimp, I guess, makes them jump up off the bottom out the mud and into the net.

PIERCE: What happens next happens fast. A line pops and one of the otter boards falls into the wave. The crew scrambles to fix the problem. John Zillman accidentally steps back into the net as it's going over the side of the boat. A chain tightens around his ankle, nearly dragging him over the side. Vinnie and Vasa hold onto him squeezing his foot out of his boot.

Capt. MAGWOOD: Get your foot out of there.

PIERCE: Once he's out, he sits on the side�

Capt. MAGWOOD: Did it hurt your ankle?

Mr. JOHN ZILLMAN: No, I'm good.

Capt. MAGWOOD: Couldn't (unintelligible) over the side.

PIERCE: They fix the line and get the nets out - all 120 feet of them. The crew then files back into the deckhouse to make eggs and grits on the small stove. Their plates slide as they eat in a cloud of cigarette smoke. 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. Wayne can't help but recall their best days.

Capt. MAGWOOD: One day, I think it was about five years ago, they opened shrimp season and the shrimp were big. The first day we caught 9,000 pounds, and they were all big shrimp. The boat made $27,000 that one day. That was the best haul we ever made. Beautiful, beautiful day.

PIERCE: Yesterday, he caught more like 600 pounds of large and medium-sized white shrimp, which brought in about $1,500. That gets divided among the boat crew and the dock crew, minus the cost of fuel. It's not that white shrimp population is down from five years ago. In fact, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, if anything, there might be more now because of the milder winters. It boils down to being in the right place at the right time. And as for today, we find out three hours later.

(Soundbite of boat)

PIERCE: Sea life spills onto the deck - a huge pile heaving like a beating heart. Stingrays, flounder, a baby shark, croakers, minnows and, of course, shrimp.

Capt. MAGWOOD: Not as pretty as I want it to be, but it's at least 200 pounds of big ones, maybe 250 pounds.

PIERCE: Now comes the job of sorting through it all. The guys sit on small stools picking out the shrimp, which go in buckets. The rest of it - some of it alive and some not - get swept overboard, a free meal to the seagulls and porpoises that follow the boat like (unintelligible).

Vinnie Vierra is Wayne Magwood's stepson and he's been shrimping for 11 years now, six days a week.

Mr. VINNY VIERRA: You make good money at it sometimes.

PIERCE: You make good money sometimes?

Mr. VIERRA: Yeah. Some years are better than other years. But, you know, we make a living doing it. Wayne put four kids through college and I got two children myself. So, I mean, we're surviving, you know.

PIERCE: Each crew member gets a 10 percent cut, he says. That translates to anywhere between $15,000 and $30,000 a year.

Capt. MAGWOOD: We're either ignorant or stubborn. I don't know which. We're just hoping it'll turn around if we can hang in there long enough. The price will go up with everything going local. Most of your shrimpers are selling to restaurants.

PIERCE: Wayne advertises a list of the Charleston restaurants that serve his shrimp on a chalkboard back at his market. These restaurants, he says, help keep shrimpers in business and promoting those relationships is the job of the South Carolina Shrimpers Association. Wayne Magwood is the president of the organization this year.

Capt. MAGWOOD: Shrimpers had a bad rap, bad PR, so we try to do some good PR. You know, 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.

PIERCE: Part of Wayne's PR strategy means taking people out on his boat, from school kids and community leaders to people like Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel and Mike Rowe from the Discovery Channel show "Dirty Jobs." He'll take anyone if it helps get the word out about ocean-caught shrimp.

Capt. MAGWOOD: Yeah, so I think the word's getting out. It's slow, but it's getting out there. Hopefully, it'll get out and we'll be able to survive. And hopefully we get some young blood in this industry 'cause there are not as many of us left.

LYDEN: And that's our producer, Thomas Pierce, with that story, and he joins me in the studio now. Thomas, I love this. You've got a bumper sticker that says Friends Don't Let Friends Eat Imported Shrimp.

PIERCE: I do. These have been around for a couple of years. They're not just in South Carolina, but you do see them on bumpers all over the state. The South Carolina Shrimpers Association hand these out and it kind of encapsulates this marketing campaign they've got going on.

LYDEN: Does it work?

PIERCE: Captain Magwood says he's noticed improvement. When we got back to the dock, there were, in fact, a couple of regular customers waiting with empty coolers. I will add, though, that Captain Magwood is doing better than many others, because he's been around for a long time and he's got this market. Most shrimpers don't have their own markets. He's got deep ties to this area, so he even remarks that if things get even worse, he could be the last one standing.

LYDEN: Well, you can see a photo gallery of a day on the Winds of Fortune shrimp trawler by coming to NPR.org. And, Thomas, thanks for doing this.

PIERCE: Thank you, Jacki.

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