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A day in the life of an S.C. shrimp boat
Photo by Mic Smith
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"Shrimping's been real good to me," says Captain Wayne Magwood, despite a promising 2012 season not panning out.
Photo by Mic Smith
DAWN HAD YET TO BREAK ON A COOL mid-December morning, toward the end of the white shrimp season, when Captain Wayne Magwood got into his pickup truck, left his Shem Creek office and headed out to round up his crew from the town of Mount Pleasant.
In his absence, only a few lights shone on The Winds of Fortune, his 68-foot trawler, and from the docks, which smelled of fish and oyster shells, one could hear music from A Charlie Brown’s Christmas blaring from a stereo he had left on inside the cabin. The trawler itself looked like some sort of maritime cathedral—its spires and wires and ropes and nets rising into the starless sky—and when Magwood returned with deckhands Richard Grassie and Carl Lee Jefferson, all three of them stepped on board to ready the boat for the day’s trip.
The 60-year-old Magwood, who was wearing white tennis shoes and a Hampton University sweatshirt, did not, as one might expect of a veteran shrimp boat captain, cut an imposing figure. Nor did he bark any orders at his crew, but spoke instead in a soft Lowcountry accent that made its way unhurriedly and reflectively through tale after tale of his 50-plus years at sea.
His whole presence, in fact, seemed to contrast with the near-mythical legend of his father, the late Captain Junior Magwood, a man revered as one of the most rugged and brash pioneers in the South Carolina shrimping industry.
“I’m a hard worker like he was, but I’m not as rough and tough as he was,” Wayne Magwood said about his father. “My dad was a pretty damn big person.”
And by big, Wayne Magwood means physical size—you used to be able to see his father’s husky, life-size statue standing in downtown Mount Pleasant, before it mysteriously disappeared—as well as influence. His father started fishing in 1942, making the Magwood name nearly synonymous with South Carolina shrimping.
That hard-work ethic is the most important thing Wayne Magwood inherited from his father, for the shrimping industry, facing overseas competition and rising fuel costs and increasing regulation, has certainly seen better days.
“The best day I ever had we caught 10,000 pounds, and I made $30,000 in one day,” he said just before sunrise, helping the deckhands untangle a particularly nasty twist in the nets. “But that was in 1996. We only caught 24 pounds the other day. It was slow. It’s been slow.”
Slow for South Carolina commercial shrimpers meant only 353,522 pounds in November and December of 2012, compared to the 514,826 pounds that commercial shrimpers caught in those same two months in 2011.
“I really don’t know what the problem is,” Magwood said. “Once in a while we’ll get a good day. This year started out promising, and it should have been a bumper crop. But it didn’t pan out.”
And that has left everybody searching for explanations and reasons. Some shrimpers blame it on a parasite that causes black gill disease, while others think it may have to do with the runoff and pesticides from all of the development along coastal waters. And then there is the all-important weather, especially the presence of large storms or harsh winters, which can have a negative effect on the spawning, overwintering shrimp that make up the following year’s crop.
“There’s no magic answer,” admits Mel Bell, director of the Office of Fisheries Management at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. “There might have been a lot of shrimp, and sometimes when you get a lot of shrimp in the system, then you have a competition for food, and the shrimp tend to get smaller.”
Whatever the reason, Magwood still had to go out and keep working hard at the only job he’s ever really known, so when all the knots were untangled, The Winds of Fortune left the dock with Magwood leaning back in his captain’s chair and steering the boat with his right foot. It was not hard to see that he had done this before. All the modern equipment around him—sonars and radars and depth gauges—bleeped and flashed, but one sensed that he was more comfortable with the pre-technology methods of locating and catching shrimp.
“We’re just gonna go out here to my favorite spot,” he said, referring to a 50-foot hole past the jetties and in clear view of the city of Charleston.
The different species of South Carolina shrimp—brown, white and pink—have similar life cycles, with the spawning taking place in the ocean, and the post-larval stages occurring farther back in the estuaries and inlets. For nearly three months shrimp will stay in this nursery habitat and grow up to 2 to 2.5 inches per month. Once they get to be more than 4 inches in length, the shrimp begin an offshore migration back to the ocean, and these are the shrimp that commercial trawlers seek.
So at 7:15 a.m., under a gray sky, it was time to try to lower the nets. All around the boat seagulls screamed, and large container ships made their way in and out of the Port of Charleston.
“You don’t ever know what you’re gonna get,” crew member Richard Grassie said about trawling the seafloor, and indeed part of shrimping’s fun is in pulling up and sorting through the bycatch—the term for all the non-shrimp species, and the non-living things, that the net pulls up.
Magwood has discovered just about everything in his nets over the years—lots of sunglasses, hats, beach toys, trees, bicycles, but also a $50-bill, a running watch, and a Jet Ski right after Hurricane Hugo.
Yet shrimping isn’t always as romantic a profession as one sees in, say, Forrest Gump. Sometimes the work is boringly routine, and shrimpers, like all fishermen, pass the time by telling stories, mostly about the good times in the past. Magwood, in particular, likes to tell stories about his family and his childhood on the salt waters of the local creeks.
Wayne Magwood was born as the second son of “Cap’n Junior,” who started shrimping by rigging up freight boats that ran vegetables from John’s Island to Charleston in the 1940s, before any connecting bridge had been built. Junior grew up on Little Bull Island near McClellanville, and to hear Wayne Magwood talk about this side of his ancestry is to go back into a seemingly quaint and idyllic frontier-like world. His grandmother only cooked on a wood stove and put her daughter through college by making money shucking oysters. The Magwood men spent almost all their time in the creek—fishing, oystering, crabbing, shrimping, hunting.
Magwood’s mother, Alba, was born to Italian parents, and he remembers her as the best cook he’s ever known, someone who “could make hot water soup taste good.” She also loved Westerns and so named her second son after one of America’s most famous cowboys, John Wayne.
Indeed, out on the open sea it isn’t hard to imagine shrimping as a sort of final frontier, and Wayne Magwood has been compared before to a modern-day East Coast cowboy. Yet that sort of myth-making neglects how tough it is to make money these days, and it’s no secret that shrimpers face stiff challenges.
“Individually, it’s been our most single important fishery in this state forever, but over the years the guys are really struggling,” Mel Bell says. “The primary thing that hits them hard is competition with foreign imports. What’s happening is they go out there, they’re trawling shrimp, but fuel costs more, waterfront property costs more, insurance costs more, boat maintenance costs more. And they can’t really sell their shrimp for the price they need to sell them for.”
There have been efforts to help: “Save the Fleet” fundraisers sponsored by the town of Mount Pleasant, which raised money for shrimpers who lost boats to fire or storm; and there are grants for Direct Marketing Associations, which let fishermen sell their product directly to customers, right off the dock. Shrimpers like Magwood have also seen some benefit from the “Buy Local” movement that has trended in youthful, hip cities like Charleston. And there are other things he can do with his boat to make money, including beach restoration and turtle relocation.
But it’s shrimping that he knows best, and shrimping that he always imagined would be his entire life’s work.
“I always thought I’d be the last one standing,” he said. “But I’m starting to have second thoughts now.”
Fifteen minutes after the nets had gone down, Captain Magwood stood up and told his crew to bring up the test nets, a smaller set of nets that gauge whether or not the boat has been trawling over any shrimp. They needed around 50 shrimp in the test nets, he said, to warrant pulling up the big nets.
The first test nets produced only a dozen or so shrimp, but 45 minutes later, when they pulled up the test nets for a second time, Captain Magwood declared a “haul back”—the term that means it’s time to pull up the big nets and unload the catch. There was a cry of pulleys and ropes and winches, and the big nets started to with a flock of seagulls and a pod of porpoises giving chase.
Upon the release of the nets, the bycatch plummeted onto the deck floor, a colorful amalgamation of horseshoe crabs, pufferfish, stingrays, starfish, spots, flounder, skate and shark. Carl Lee Jefferson and Richard Grassie shoveled most of it through the scupper hole and back into the ocean, but they also set aside some of the bycatch to take home and eat or to sell to neighbors and friends.
Somewhere in all that bycatch, however, were the shrimp—gray and fat and long as a finger. The crew selected these from the pile like jewels and tossed them into the baskets. Magwood estimated they’d gotten about 25 pounds in the first catch, and he took two dozen of the biggest shrimp, put them into a pot of water on a boiler plate on the cabin stove, sprinkled some spices over them, and served the shrimp to everybody on board.
There may be nothing like eating a shrimp caught five minutes beforehand from the ocean. The supremely meaty and salty taste—infinitely better than anything imported and sold at an all-you-can-eat buffet—is why local restaurants are always wanting more shrimp and why Magwood spends so much time chasing after the little crustaceans in the first place.
“We’ve always got the market,” he said. “We just don’t have the shrimp. But when we had the shrimp, we didn’t have the market. It’s a Catch-22. We could be selling 1,000 pounds a day, if we had it.”
“The problem is not overfishing, because there’s only 10 boats 20 miles this way and 20 miles that way,” he said, pointing north and south along the South Carolina coast. “We got all this fishing grounds that we could work, and there should be plenty of shrimp. There used to be 100 boats in that creek, and now there’s only 10.”
In the early afternoon, resigned to the fact that it was another slow one, Magwood called it a day. The day’s small catch, it was obvious, frustrated him, but it also caused him to reflect about his life in the business.
“Shrimping’s been good to me,” he said. “I raised four girls, all got educated. I paid for two shrimp boats, and I had three houses at one time. Shrimping’s been real good to me.”
He began steering The Winds of Fortune back to the dock with his right foot like always, with 37 pounds in the baskets and the bills needing to be paid. For a moment, it seemed as if this might be Magwood’s last season, and he spoke about going to run tugboats in Texas for the winter, or getting a job as a diesel mechanic in town.
But Richard Grassie shrugged it off.
“If anybody can make it, he can make it,” he said when the captain was out of earshot. “He’s the toughest man I’ve ever known.”
BACK FOR MORE
Captain Wayne Magwood wound up in Port Arthur, Texas, over the winter, running a 30-foot crew boat on the Sabine River, but his heart and his head were still back in the Lowcountry. As this issue went to press, he was keeping tabs on conditions in South Carolina and planning to return for the start of the brown shrimp season in late May. “I’m not sure if I’m coming back for good, or not,” he says. “It all depends on how the shrimp are looking.”