Harvest keeps local shrimp farming industry afloat

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Harvest keeps local shrimp farming industry afloat

Published Monday, October 31, 2011   |  547 Words  |  

Scott McNair stood at the edge of his one-acre shrimp pond in Yemassee, his blue eyes fixed on the slowly receding water level.

The annual harvest was under way.

Within hours, nearly 4,000 pounds of shrimp would be sucked from the pond, travel about 100 yards through a tube and placed on ice for shipment to a market in Columbia.

McNair's is one of only two such operations in South Carolina, part of an aquaculture industry that has gone all but belly-up in the past two decades.

There used to be about 15 such farms in the state, according to Wally Jenkins, a fisheries biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

In the mid-1990s, those farms produced more than a million pounds of shrimp each year -- roughly one-third of the state's cumulative shrimp haul.

Jenkins estimates this year's crop of farm-raised shrimp won't surpass 10,000 pounds.

"At the end of the day, these local farms just couldn't compete with foreign production," said Jenkins, noting that over 80 percent of shrimp in the U.S. is imported.

"Foreign farms have cheaper labor costs, cheaper land, cheaper everything," Jenkins said.

The decline of local aquaculture also was hastened by disease, according to Al Stokes, manager of the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton.

"When a shrimp gets a disease in the wild and dies, it gets snapped up pretty quick," Stokes said. "But if it gets a disease on a farm, it'll contaminate the whole supply."

Shrimp farms were also sold or abandoned during the coastal real estate boom of the 1990s and 2000s, according to Stokes.

"It just became too expensive to maintain a pond," Stokes said, "when nice homes were going up all around instead."

Part of the decline in domestic aquaculture is also attributable to geography. Shrimp thrive in warm waters, and farmers in southeast Asia and Central America are able to have three harvests a year.

For McNair, standing under chilly and overcast skies Monday night, the single harvest marked the culmination of months of feeding and close supervision.

He manages the Auldbrass Plantation in Yemassee and knows his humble harvest will never amount to more than a supplemental source of income.

"Farms like this have always been just a drop in the bucket," McNair said. "Just a nice little lick before Christmas, nothing to get rich off of."

He's hoping to sell this year's crop of Pacific white shrimp at $4 per pound. Much of the revenue will go toward feeding next year's shrimp; he said about two pounds of feed are used for every pound of shrimp harvested.

But McNair, who was joined at the harvest by his family and friends, is undeterred by the daunting finances involved in an aquaculture operation.

"I've been doing this over thirty years," he said. "I just always wanted to grow shrimp in my own backyard."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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