by Marsh Elliot
Talk of shrimping conjures romantic thoughts. The West has its cowboys, saddled and gun slinging, but the South has her shrimpers, men in raggedy clothes and white rubber boots. They man long boats equipped with steel outriggers and strong nets, and pull in line on rolling ocean. For the committed, nets in at sunrise and up at sunset. Speckled with sea salt and bleached by the sun they haul in nets, sort catch, ice down, and repeat. Each day, weather prevailing, they catch and harvest and bring to market a food that helps establish the culture of the South. But for an occupation so glorified, the South Carolina shrimper is disappearing. Retired shrimper Boochie Fontaine tells me that there were once, "25 boats in the creek, and most of them local.” Now there is only one boat left. What happened?
The Fontaine family has been a fixture on Edisto for many years. After moving to Edisto in the 1950’s, they opened the first shrimp house and owned Edisto’s first shrimp boats. Shrimping came naturally to Boochie. At the age of seven he began shrimping with his father every summer and eventually came to own the iconic Miss Edisto.
Boochie contends that the disappearance of Edisto’s shrimpers is not to blame on a lack of shrimp crop. He instead explains that shrimping is like farming, "you have good years and bad years…and like everything else, you have to work it.” The same thing that ailed the local farmer vanquished the Edisto shrimper, high fuel prices and the high value of land. "There is no place to tie your boat up anymore” explains Boochie. "The high property values make it more profitable to build a condo or put up a house than have a place for a shrimp boat.” On Big Bay Creek, what could be considered the "port” of Edisto, there is one remaining seafood dock. Edisto Seafood, owned by Ashley and Berry Fontaine, has one or two slips that are available to tie up a large vessel like a shrimp boat. The rest of the creek is lined with homes and residential docks. In the eyes of a businessman, the pursuit of shrimp is not the pursuit of profit. But that may not be the case for much longer.
While cheap imported shrimp do play an important role in the decline of the American shrimping industry, the demand for local shrimp, at least on Edisto, is still overwhelmingly prevalent. In fact, the last shrimp boat on Edisto, the Sarah Jane, struggles to keep Edisto Seafood stocked with local shrimp. A constant question asked by patrons at local restaurants is: are your shrimp local? Tourists and locals alike indulge in the easy harvest of shrimp made possible by a shrimp baiting season. The demand is there. The door to an eager market is open; we need shrimpers and boats to step in.
However, in the mean time, as the driver of that demand, you can continue to support Edisto seafood shops and request local shrimp. The way to elect effective change is by voting with your wallet. Buy local, because as Boochie’s father always used to say, "The shrimp will always be there.”