Fishing industry suffers as drought worsens in Beaufort County

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Fishing industry suffers as drought worsens in Beaufort County

By BRIAN HEFFERNAN
bheffernan@islandpacket.com
Published Thursday, February 7, 2013   |  503 Words  |  

When Larry Toomer hauled in 60 crab traps Tuesday, it was another reminder of how bad the winter fishing season has been.

The owner of the Bluffton Oyster Co. caught about 150 blue crabs -- only two bushels. Last year, he pulled up 20 to 30 bushels a day.

Now?

"We're barely breaking even."

Drought is making the seawater saltier and driving many crabs too far up freshwater rivers and creeks to catch legally, Toomer said.

Between .3 and .7 inches of rain fell on Beaufort County by 5 p.m. Thursday, according to local weather centers. However, the area needs more soon, or the drought "could be devastating to the shrimp and crab industries," said Toomer.

Shrimp spawn in February and March. If the estuaries, which act as nurseries for shrimp larvae, are too crowded, there won't be enough food to grow a strong population, said Toomer.

"They're all fighting for the same microscopic dinner," he said.

The S.C. Drought Response Committee raised the drought level to "moderate" -- the third level of a five-point severity scale -- for Beaufort County last week. The committee bases the ratings on several factors, such as groundwater levels and crop damage. About half of the state's 46 counties are experiencing similar dry spells.

Each of the past three years has been drier than usual, according to data recorded at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, the closest site such data is collected.

And that's a problem, state climatologist Hope Mizzell says.

The droughts have affected decreased ground and surface water levels, and dried out marshes, crops and forests in many parts of the state, including Beaufort County, Mizzell said.

Last month, only a half-inch fell at the airport -- more than three inches below normal, according to National Weather Service data. This has been the area's driest winter since 2008.

Craig Reaves, owner of Sea Eagle Market in Beaufort and C.J. Seafood in Port Royal, said the market price for crab is high now -- between $14 and $20 per dozen -- but that doesn't help much when traps come up empty.

"We're probably down a third from what we were catching last year," said Reaves.

This has been the worst winter for crabbing in five years, Reaves said. However, fluctuating markets and catches are natural in the commercial fishing industry, he said.

"We have to make a living on the water and deal with all the factors that come with that," he said. "You just have to take it as it comes."

Related content

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