Farmers of the Sea

Each year, thousands of coastal residents take to the water to cast shrimp nets and lay crab traps in an attempt to capture some of the sea’s rich bounty. Shrimping and crabbing, it seems, are virtually as old as the Lowcountry itself. Ever since native American tribes first harvested oysters from the rocky beds that emerge from the fertile mud area rivers at low tide over 10,000 years ago, the coastal plains have offered sustenance – and a gainful means of employment – for residents of the Lowcountry.

“The area has a rich sea culture,” explains Ron Sirisky of Charleston, an amateur historian with an interest in shrimping and crabbing. “Shrimpers and crabbers are like the old-time family farmers except they’re farmers of the sea.”

Sirisky grew up shrimping and crabbing along the Carolina coast with his family and still enjoys going out on the water in pursuit of shellfish. “You’re just totally in harmony with nature,” he says with rapture in his eyes. “It’s a spiritual experience more than anything else. You’re one of the elements. You’re not competing with anything. You’re a part of it. It’s like peeping through a keyhole and seeing things from National Geographic.”

Using technology and strategies learned from European fishing villages, many nineteenth-century European immigrants plied their trade in Lowcountry waters, harvesting shrimp, crabs and oysters. Fathers used to pass the tradition down to their sons, Strisky says, but “now sons and daughters are going off to college and becoming computer people. As a result, the esterine Lowcountry culture is disappearing.”

Nevertheless, shrimp, crabs and oysters remain popular local fare and serve as the backbone of the local seafood industry. But you don’t have to own a shrimp boat to enjoy the challenge of the sea. Anyone can go out on the water to catch shrimp or crabs – you just have to know how.

Recreational shrimpers seem to be divided between freecasters and baiters, each of whom espouses a contradictory philosophy about catching shrimp. Freecasters eschew the ease of bait and instead choose to rely upon the changing tides and old-fashioned luck, casting their nets into the open water with the hope of catching a colony of shrimp.

Baiters, on the other hand, purposely attract shrimp with dried fishmeal patties – packed in marsh mud or red clay – luring these black-eyed crustaceans to feed by planting bait near poles spaced about 10 yards apart. Baiters often set up their poles at night, working with the incoming tide in an effort to pull in more shrimp.

Shrimp baiting is regulated in the Lowcountry by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and is only allowed for a 60-day period with a special baiting license that cost $25. This year the baiting season runs from September 9th to November 8th. Because it does not deplete the local shrimp population with the same voracity, freecasting is allowed year-round and does not require a license.

A number of Lowcountry residents enjoy catching their own shellfish as a means of recreation, spending a day on the water in pursuit of a favorite delicacy. The rewards are, of course, delicious.

With their fast-moving legs and willowy antennas, shrimp can prove to be an elusive catch. Every day, commercial shrimp boats launch from dozens of area marinas in search of these local crustaceans, dropping enormous string nets into the water with the hopes of pulling in squirming boatfuls of live shrimp.

Local recreational shrimpers enjoy taking small open-top motorboats out on the waterways to cast weighted mesh nets – secured around the edges with a drawstring that turns the round net into and enclosure with the pull of a string – in the hopes of capturing some of the sea’s bounty.

Popular local shrimping spots include Saw Mill Creek, Bull Island, Buck Island, Middlemarsh Island and Lemon Island. Area waters can be quite crowded on weekends during baiting season as throngs of recreational shrimpers take to the water, but otherwise shrimping can be a remarkably relaxing and contemplative experience.

A large part of shrimping, it seems, involves understanding shrimp behavior. Shrimp typically avoid fresh water and seek deeper water after a heavy rain. Experienced shrimpers know how the tides, rain and weather conditions affect the shrimp’s actions and can often predict their location by assessing the environmental factors at work.

Many recreational shrimpers also enjoy crabbing in Lowcountry waterways. If you have ever noticed softball-sized styrofoam spheres bobbing in the waves, you have seen the distinctive markers for crab traps set in a number of area inland rivers. Crab traps are typically made of wire and are set with bait to attract these bottom-dwelling members of our local ecosystem.

Scavengers at heart, crabs scour riverbeds in search of food. Old-timers insist that rabbit makes the best crab bait, while other local crabbers swear by chicken necks or fish heads. No licenses or permits are required to catch crabs, unless you plan to set more than two traps which makes you, in the eyes of South Carolina law, a commercial crabber.

Atlantic Blue Claw Crabs, more commonly called blue crabs, tend to be the most plentiful and easiest crabs to catch in the Lowcountry. Blue crabs can be caught with a chicken neck attached to the end of a string. The crabs start eating and the crabber pulls up the string and scoops up the crab with a net just before it reaches the surface.

Crabs tend to congregate around docks or along muddy banks and can be caught from the shore or at sea.

Crabs are everywhere in the Atlantic, from the Chesapeake to the tip of South America. The popularity of crabbing in the Lowcountry is that “people like to catch things.” It’s really fun – and you can eat them! It’s not like fishing, which requires skill and patience. Anyone can go crabbing.

South Carolina law requires that crabbers toss back any crabs that measure less than five inches across the back or any crabs that are showing roe, indicating that the female is reproducing. Because females reproduce only once at the end of their life cycle, they must be protected to ensure the health of the local crab population.

Blue crabs tend to be big enough to eat in April and May and from August through November. Local fisherman advocate a “catch and release” policy, release crabs that will not be eaten to ensure the hardiness of the crab population.

Although blue crabs are the most frequently caught crabs in the Lowcountry, stone crabs roam the bottom of area river beds as well. Crabs are best caught in wire basket traps baited with fish heads. State law requires that when catching stone crabs only one claw can be broken off.

What is the underlying appeal of shrimping and crabbing that drives countless people out of the Lowcountry’s waterways in search of shellfish? The answer may lie in the ineffable appeal of nature itself. “It’s the marsh smell, the sound of the oysters as they crack open and filter the water,” Sirisky enthuses. “it’s like lying on the beach and looking up at the stars and feeling very, very small.”

To apply for a baiting permit to catch shrimp during baiting season, from September 9 to November 8, Visit South Carolina Department of Natural Resources or 803.734.3833.

Article appeared in Lifestyles in the Lowcountry by Allison Hersh, a freelance writer in Savannah, GA.