Since 2005, whenever the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources conducted its March survey trawl to check on the health of the local white shrimp population, the average number of shrimp in the sample was around 145. This year, when the nets were pulled up, there were only three.
This wasn’t a huge surprise to the test conductors; very cold winters in Charleston devastated the white shrimp population, which can’t survive well in low water temperatures. Nevertheless, Mel Bell, the DNR’s Director of Office of Fisheries Management and South Atlantic Fishery Management Council State Resource Agency Appointee, is cautiously optimistic.
“This isn’t the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last,” says Bell, who can recall at least four seasons in the past 30 years when the white shrimp population dipped to an acute low following an extreme cold snap. The last time it happened was just back in 2014. “And at least we know there are shrimp there,” he says of the meager trio that were netted. “In 2001 and 2011, our March sample trawls pulled in zero.”
So Bell and company aren’t willing to throw in the towel yet. “April numbers tend to be a pretty reliable forecast of what the spawning crop will look like. That’ll give us a better indicator of shrimp population in the May/June timeframe, and then we’ll develop an opening strategy for the season.” Management will most likely delay the opening of the season to give the shrimp a chance to thrive first. Bell says there’s a chance we’ll see a mini-spike in shrimp once those April numbers are in — but there’s also a strong chance this year will be a lean one. Another possibility is that the brown shrimp population will be healthy, as it often is in years when the white suffers, because its season runs later in the year, through summer and into fall. “No matter what, though, this isn’t going to be a year that the shrimp harvest just blows everyone away,” he says.
Historically, during a time when one food source faltered, people would naturally turn to another source and subsist on it until things balanced out again. But we’re now a society used to everything being, if not necessarily in-season, then at least available year-round. There are multitudinous other seafood out there, but you can rip the shrimp from Charleston’s collective cold dead hands. It’s a go-to on most menus, a staple in many homes. So these seasonal shortages aren’t easy on the purveyors we depend on to bring in the shrimp.
Joanie Cooksey has co-owned and operated Crosby’s Fish and Shrimp Co. on Folly since 1988, alongside her twin sister Ellie Berry. Cooksey is worried. She’s pretty confident that the season will open late, and she estimates that shrimp make up about 70 percent of her business. This past January, when the rest of us were feeling the mild thrill that goes along with snow blanketing an area that hardly ever sees any, Cooksey and her husband, Neal, were groaning.
“I had to tell my kids not to act happy about the snow or the school closings in front of their dad,” she says, chuckling. “The mood in our house was dark.” The Cooksey kids know that winters like this mean that they won’t get to see as much of their father, a 40-year veteran of the shrimping industry, when the season begins. He’ll be spending long hours, days sometimes, traveling up and down the coast, procuring the shrimp needed to keep Crosby’s customers happy. “‘Whatever it takes’ is the motto we as a business and we as a family have had to adopt,” Cooksey says.
“Normally in the springtime, we’ve got a boat that will run south to Georgia to work, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do this year because of the closings,” she says. She’s referring to the federal and state trawling closings of both Georgia and South Carolina waters — an unusual twist. Though the closings have happened before, it’s atypical for them to all run in both states simultaneously. Both states’ shrimp populations were affected by similar weather issues. According to Kim Iverson of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), the GADNR’s data suggests “one of the worst freeze kills in the 41 years it has been conducting monitoring surveys, with a 96.1 percent reduction in white shrimp abundance from December 2017 to January 2018.” She also points out that “white shrimp is the most valuable commercial fishery in Georgia.”
The SAFMC develops fishery management plans within federal waters. State waters are made up of the three-mile stretch from the coastline, while federal waters constitute the three to two hundred mile-wide swath of water that goes out to the open sea. The SAFMC works with many state DNRs along the Atlantic coastline to ensure the livelihood of oceanic wildlife and felt the closings were necessary to protect the shrimp population — those that survived likely moved to offshore federal waters to find more livable temperatures. Iverson says that once the state waters are deemed ready to reopen, petitions will be filed and the federal waters should quickly follow suit.
Cooksey knows the closings, though troublesome, are a good thing for overall longevity. She says Crosby’s is dedicated to remaining open and honest with customers about when things are best or are in season and to helping wildlife resource management do its job. “I pray and hope we can have enough shrimp locally to maintain this year, and that it’s just going to happen later in the year. Traveling farther South is going to have to be an option. And as far as alternatives, we’re going to have to put our hearts in more local fishing.” Cooksey looks forward to the summer seasons when grouper and wreckfish abound, and she says vermillion snapper, triggerfish, and golden tile are great catches coming out of the water right now.
Paul Specht has worked at Mount Pleasant Seafood Company for 15 years. Mount Pleasant Seafood only keeps one size of local shrimp — jumbo — on hand year-round, frozen in the off months. The other sizes are procured from Florida. He says, “The most noticeable effect, business-wise, is when people want to wait for the season to open to buy the shrimp fresh, instead of frozen. Some people really want shrimp that night, so they’re happy to buy frozen. But we do notice that, if the season isn’t too long off, people who normally buy frozen will wait a couple of weeks to come in and buy shrimp so they’re getting fresh-caught.” And when the season gets pushed further and further back, Mount Pleasant Seafood sees a lull in sales. And like at Crosby’s, shrimp is a big part of business there — roughly 50 to 60 percent during the season.
Specht says seafood sales are all about public mindset. “Blessing of the Fleet weekend, we sell a ridiculous amount of shrimp whether they’re frozen or not. During the annual oyster festival, we’re selling tons of oysters because everyone’s thinking about them.”
Like most true seafood aficionados, Specht is a fan of “trash fish” — an unfortunate moniker given to certain varieties by fishermen who couldn’t fetch a high price for them. Right now, he’s really into sheepshead. If you’ve never seen a sheepshead’s mouth, it’s the stuff of nightmares. They have monstrous rows of teeth that look almost human, and they eat barnacles and crabs and love to hang out near Shem Creek. Specht describes the taste and texture as a middle ground between spottail bass and flounder.
It’s easier to persuade people to try lesser known fish nowadays, thanks to Cooksey, Specht, and their counterparts, like Mark Marhefka, owner of Abundant Seafood. Marhefka is famous for bringing relatively unpopular fish to the attention of some of Charleston’s finest restaurants and chefs, like Sean Brock and Mike Lata. For him, distribution is based upon customer loyalty, meaning his customers have to be willing to work with what the sea gives him on any given fishing day. Marhefka sells his catches to both chefs and home cooks; on certain days he also runs a CSF (Community Supported Fishery).
Marhefka’s attitude towards the local obsession with white shrimp borders on contempt. A fisherman devoted to removing the “trash fish” label, he doesn’t understand the blind loyalty to white shrimp. He also doesn’t shrimp, so it isn’t a huge part of his business, but over the past year he has been dealing in a lesser-known variety, the Royal Red. This deepwater shrimp is much larger than its brethren (10 to 12 in a pound, head-off), has a rich crimson color, and offers a flavor profile more akin to lobster. It isn’t the fodder for peel-n-eats or something you’d use in a boil, he says —the complexity and texture make this a shellfish better suited to sautéing in butter or in other elegant preparations. Chefs also love them because they’re typically uniform in size.
Marhefka says the craze for lesser-known seafood in local restaurants has flattened out a bit because he’s gotten every kind of fish that he’s been allowed to harvest into the hands of a chef. Lesser-known is becoming known. Those certain fish that were once labeled “trash” by unhappy fishermen, well, that’s changing. “Wildlife management comes in and limits the amount of higher-value fish you can catch,” Marhefka says. “Now not only do we have to catch this lesser-value fish to fill that void, we have to figure out ways to fetch a better price for it, and we have to think about how to take better care of that lesser-value fish. So that’s been my message: If you want more money for the fish we’re allowed to harvest, take better care of it. And the chefs will come and demand this product because they don’t have to do that much to it and its delicious. Truly fresh fish is at its best when served simply.”
Marhefka uses his CSF as an educational tool for the public. “The fish in the ocean does not belong to me,” he says. “It belongs to the public. It is a public resource. And I am able to harvest it and give it to the people who enjoy that resource. The more they know about it, the better.”
In the spirit of educating the public in shrimp alternatives, three local chefs and restaurants crafted recipes that traditionally feature shrimp using a different kind of seafood. Chef Fred Neuville of The Fat Hen, Chef Nico Romo of NICO, and Bowens Island’s Hope Barber McIntosh give their takes on new ways to up your seafood game.
Bowens Island’s Littleneck Clam Boil
(Instead of a Shrimp Boil)
Hope Barber McIntosh: “Littleneck clams are available year-round and they’re not terribly expensive. Sustainability is extremely important to us, but so are accessibility and cost. This is a dish you can have with a big group of people that’s a crowd-pleaser.”
6-8 cups cold water
3 Tbs. Old Bay Seasoning
Dash hot sauce
1 sweet onion, peeled and quartered
1½ pounds small new red potatoes
2 pounds kielbasa, cut into 2-inch lengths
6 ears corn, shucked and broken in half
5 pounds Littleneck clams, cleaned
Cocktail sauce, for serving
Place the cold water, hot sauce, and onion into a large pot. (The amount of water depends on the size of the pot; you should have enough space inside to let the ingredients breathe and move, and enough water to barely cover them). Bring to a boil over high heat, then add onion and potatoes and cook for 10-15 minutes, until potatoes are soft when pierced with a fork. Add kielbasa, corn, and clams and cook for 6-8 minutes, until the clams pop open. Discard any clams that do not open. Divide amongst 6 serving dishes, or if you want to go Lowcountry style, dump everything onto a table covered with newspaper. Serve with cocktail sauce.
Nico Romo’s Seafood Escabeche
(Instead of Shrimp Salad)
Nico Romo: “When there’s a shrimp shortage, we obviously have no choice but to find and use other ingredients. I love using octopus (which is Spanish) and always love to use sea scallops in my escabeche, as they are available year around. I like to change what I include in the escabeche as the seasons change. This is a fun, versatile dish that allows me to use whatever fish/shellfish I can get my hands on at the time.”
6 garlic cloves, crushed
2 cups red wine vinegar
6 star anise
1 tsp. whole cloves
1 Tbs. white peppercorns
2 Tbs. kosher salt
6 cup fume (concentrated fish stock)
1 bulb fennel, trimmed and cut into ½ inch-thick slices
3 shallots, cut into ¼ inch-thick slices
3 celery stalks, peeled and sliced into ½ inch-thick half-moons
12 scallops, each filet-sliced into fourths
3 whole heads octopus, cut into 1-inch slices
1. In a large pot over high heat, combine garlic, vinegar, star anise, cloves, peppercorns, salt, and fume and bring to a boil. Strain, reserving liquid.
2. In a large bowl, combine fennel, shallots, and celery. Pour the liquid over the vegetables.
3.Arrange octopus and scallop slices in a large dish or casserole pan. Pour the liquid-vegetable mixture over the seafood. Place dish in an ice-bath and into the fridge. Let sit for 12 to 24 hours until well-pickled, then divide among chilled serving bowls and serve very cold.
Fred Neuville Sheepshead Fish & Grits
(Instead of Shrimp and Grits)
Fred Neuville: “Making your own Tasso gravy will definitely be the highlight of your fish and grits. This recipe will also work well with most light, flaky fish.”
2 quarts water
4½ cups half-and-half
2 cups grits
1½ cups grated Parmesan cheese
5 ounces bacon, cooked and crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbs. vegetable oil, divided
5 shallots, diced
6 Tbs. minced garlic
1¼ pounds Tasso ham, diced
3¼ cups white wine
7 cups heavy cream
6-8 Tbs. butter, to thicken
6-8 Tbs. flour, to thicken
6 7-ounce sheepshead fillets
1 large red bell pepper, julienned
1 large yellow bell pepper, julienned
1 large green bell pepper, julienned
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
1. Make the grits: In a large pot on high heat, bring water and half & half to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and add grits. Cook, stirring frequently, until the grits become soft with no lumps and start to thicken up, about 10-12 minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and whisk until smooth. Add bacon and season with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep on low heat.
2. Make the Tasso gravy: In a medium pot over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon oil and add shallots and garlic. Sauté for 3-5 minutes until shallots are browned. Add Tasso ham and cook for 5 minutes until golden brown. Add wine cook until and reduced by half. Add heavy cream and reduce by half again, about 10-15 minutes. Alternate whisking in butter and flour, a tablespoon at a time, until sauce has thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 more minutes, until the raw taste of flour is gone. Set aside and keep warm, reserving ¼ cup for sautéing with the fish.
3. Make the fish mixture: In a large sauté pan over high heat, heat remaining tablespoon oil for 1 minute. Add fish fillets. Sear on one side, flip, and then cook for 2-3 minutes until fish is slightly opaque. Add peppers and onion and sauté until soft and tender, about 2 minutes. Add reserved ¼ cup Tasso gravy and lemon juice.
4. Divide grits among 6 serving dishes. Place fish mixture on top of grits, then top with remaining Tasso gravy.