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Chasing Shrimp

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Chasing Shrimp
Photography by Christopher Shane

Bucking rumors of a dying industry, young Lowcountry shrimpers take to the sea.

Vasa, the boat's captain.

In pre-dawn’s inky stillness, brackish water floods the back roads leading to Haddrell’s Point near the mouth of Shem Creek on Charleston’s harbor, the full moon’s gravitational pull swelling tides to record heights. Where pavement turns to gravel, a lone street lamp illuminates old signage for the shuttered Wando Shrimp Company, a once vibrant seafood-processing warehouse that closed in 2014 after a sixty-five-year run. There, a ramshackle wooden walkway stretches toward the glaring floodlights of a shrimp trawler named the Miss Paula. Her tangle of furled nets, steel winches, chains, and ropes reach into the night sky. Water laps the dock as three young men pass buckets of ice up onto deck. One by one, their feet anchored in a scupper hole for leverage, they hoist themselves aboard.

In an industry dominated by old salts, some of whom have been trawling shrimp for more than fifty years, the Miss Paula is remarkable for the youth of her crew. Captain Vasily “Vasa” Tarvin, at the time of this outing in late 2016, is 25. His deck mate, Franklin Rector, 23. Manning the wheel is Michael Brown, who at the age of 37, wryly pronounces himself “babysitter” on today’s run.

The steady hum of an engine nicknamed the “Screamin’ Demon” rattles the hull as Miss Paula debarks. Vasa and Rector, their preparatory work done, scamper to the galley’s roof for the ride. Brown steers sometimes by hand, sometimes by foot, windows open to the cold, salty air. The boat makes her way past a barely discernible spit of land called Crab Bank, a seasonal mating ground for pelicans. “I’ve been doing this so long,” says Brown, “it’s like putting your shoes on. I could do it with my eyes closed.”

The Warren H. Rector trawls close by, hungry seagulls in pursuit.

Dawn breaks. Trawling net in place, Miss Paula resumes her patient crawl, bobbing and swaying on the ocean’s surface like a drunken cradle. Now it’s a game of patience and luck.
A healthy, wriggling, late season brown shrimp.

Exiting the creek is the trickiest part. Many a naive helmsman has run his boat aground on the invisibly shifting sandy bottom of Charleston’s harbor. Brown navigates with a watchful eye, clearing swamped jetties at the harbor’s mouth. Then, perhaps sensing that things are a little too peaceful, he reaches up with a sly grin and pulls a lever. The boat’s horn pierces the serene grey-blue veil of pre-dawn, briefly dispersing a gang of interloping seagulls balanced on various cables. No doubt this elicits some choice curse words from Vasa and Rector, which was perhaps Brown’s objective.

Near an underwater formation called Rattlesnake Shoal, it’s all hands on deck. Working silently but swiftly with choreographed precision, the three young salts unfurl nets, lower outrigger booms, and position the wide trawl net to drag roughly twenty feet below along the ocean floor. The wide mesh will scoop up everything in its path for the next few hours, its filter spitting out anything wider than three inches (a device developed to protect sea turtles). Dawn breaks. Trawling net in place, Miss Paula resumes her patient crawl, bobbing and swaying on the ocean’s surface like a drunken cradle. Now it’s a game of patience and luck.

Vasa Tarvin and Franklin Rector prepare to tow the lines.

Vasa settles onto a galley bench, warms his hands on a portable heater, then scrolls intently through social media, checking out cyber shrimping friends in far-flung locales like Mexico and Italy. A framed photo on the wall above his head depicts Vasa at age 12, dangling from the outrigger, disentangling a net.

Miss Paula is Vasa’s boat. (Well, technically, she belongs to his parents, Cindy and Taylor Tarvin, who recognized his love for shrimping and bought it for him. Let’s call the Tarvins “the accidental shrimpers.”) The Tarvins adopted Vasa and his two siblings from a Russian orphanage when he was 5. Life in Charleston proved stable and loving, yet Vasa squirmed at school, and longed to work with his hands. He was a physical kid, effortlessly adept at any sport he tried. At age 11, his intuitive teacher Paula Urbino introduced Vasa to veteran shrimper Wayne Magwood, whose elders were among Charleston’s earliest commercial shrimpers. Magwood agreed to show Vasa the ropes on his trawler Winds of Fortune.

Photo of young Vasa learning the ropes.

“The summer he was 12, Vasa went every single day,” says Cindy. “I would bring him to the dock at 3:30 am, and pick him up each afternoon. It was like camp. He loved it. He didn’t ask for a penny that year. Money meant nothing to him.”

Vasa worked as paid summer crew for Magwood through high school. “Then one day, Wayne suggested that I think about getting Vasa his own boat,” says Cindy. In 2011, feeling certain that Vasa’s future did not lie landlocked behind a desk, the Tarvins purchased a paintchipped but solid 1969 wooden trawler from one of Magwood’s cousins. They rechristened it the Miss Paula, named for the teacher who inspired Vasa to pursue this unexpected calling.

SHIFTING CURRENTS

Vasa and Brown haul up a test net to check the tail count, then decide to continue dragging the main trawl net a bit longer. It’s mid-November, late in shrimp season. Most brown shrimp have migrated by now. Brown’s father is currently helming the Tarvins’ other boat, a steel-hulled “freezer boat” that chases shrimp down toward Cape Canaveral, Florida. In Charleston, counts are waning.

Dancing on the rail, Vasa Tarvin unfurls a net.

In more general terms, wild shrimp counts aren’t quite what they used to be. Overshrimping is not the issue. Scientists point fingers at possible culprits impacting the environment, including coastal development (golf course runoff, pesticides, pollutants, mosquito spraying), which may hinder the shrimp in their juvenile stage as they cluster, feed, and grow in the shallow waters of inlets and estuaries.

In February and March, if you dip a net into the creek at low tide, you’ll scoop up dozens of translucent, wriggling, tiny baby shrimp. This bolsters hopes down at the docks that the year will bring a bumper crop. Yet come late April or May, when officials at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announce the opening of shrimping season, the mature shrimp fail to appear. Theories abound, from a parasite called black gill disease, to shifting water temperatures.

It’s no wonder that shrimpers open their season with a prayer. From North Carolina to Florida, crowds gather for food, pageantry, and festivities at annual fleet blessings. “I remember one yearwhen the weather was so crappy, they canceled the Blessing of the Fleet,” Cindy says, “but the priest went down to the docks anyway and blessed each boat.”

Sometimes luck strikes. In May of 2016, Magwood took DNR officials out for a test run to gauge the shrimp population, and Wind of Fortune’s nets bulged with thousands of pounds of the iridescent, meaty little swimmers.

Buckets of shrimp and tasty bycatch for market.

Likewise, in 2011, new captain Vasa had more luck than he could handle, bringing in 2,000 pounds of shrimp within two days. His parents were in Texas at the time, out of cell phone range and unable to field his frantic phone calls about what to do with all the shrimp. Fisherman Mark Marhefka kindly took the boy under his arm and helped him offload it to some local restaurants. It dawned on Vasa’s parents that they needed to step up themselves to manage business and marketing. If their son could catch the shrimp, they would sell it. Thus, Tarvin Seafood Company was born. Taylor, a lifelong airline pilot, never quit his day job, but Cindy traded in medical office life to man the processing shed and retail space on the warehouse platform where the former Wando Shrimp Company once stood.

At first, not everyone on the creek was excited at the prospect of a new competitor joining an already dwindling fleet. Shem Creek once boasted upward of eighty trawlers, tied up sideby- side three or four abreast. As of 2017, there are a dozen. Clobbered by the 1-2-3-punch of rising gas costs, competition from cheap foreign pond-raised shrimp flooding the market and driving prices down, plus practically nonexistent insurance (not to mention unpredictable hauls), countless shrimpers pulled up anchor and retired their nets. The Tarvins entered shrimping arguably at its lowest ebb.

Brown and Franklin Rector weigh part of the day's catch.

TESTING THE WATERS

Deeming it’s time to haul the net, Vasa, Brown, and Rector strap on their waders. The captain guides the winch, his calm belying the risk that one slip could cost him a finger or an arm. He knows his bounds.

Dangling above deck, the trawl net balloons not only with shrimp, but with stingrays, flounder, blowfish, crabs, whiting, and a multitude of cannonball jellyfish. Brown pulls a release. The catch plummets to the wooden deck below with a slippery thud.

The men take seats and make quick work of sorting the catch. Shrimp toss into baskets by the handful. Bycatch gets funneled through the scupperhole by the trowel. Some creatures will survive the ordeal and swim to freedom, but judging from the chorus of titillated seabirds, bobbing dolphins, and lurking sharks, the Miss Paula is serving a free lunch.

A massive cargo ship moves steadily adjacent, sending a large wake toward the Miss Paula. “We’re rollin’ now!” says Vasa. Rector pipes back, “Yee-haw!”

Sorting done, the net is once more lowered for trawling. Another shrimp boat appears off the bow. “That’s granddad’s boat!” waves Rector, his grandfather Bubba at the helm of the passing trawler.

As with the Rectors, many who work in the shrimping industry do so because their fathers did, and their father’s father, and so on, and so on. The Tarvins, however, were outsiders. Somewhat daunted at first (shrimpers can be territorial about dock space), Cindy maintained her cool, always searching for solutions. Despite a strong “buy local” movement, Cindy noticed that many restaurants had stopped buying local shrimp because they couldn’t depend on it regularly. In times of abundance, restaurants felt overburdened with product, but if boats stayed in (bad weather, fuel prices, sick captains), restaurants went without. In a city like Charleston, where tourists demand their shrimp and grits and fried shrimp platters at the ready, this wouldn’t do.

Cindy Tarvin mans the warehouse.

Cindy invested in a walk-in freezer, ensuring local restaurants a steady supply yearround. She reached out to other shrimpers and suggested a co-op whereby they could pool shrimp and share profits. “If I could count the number of times other shrimpers told me ‘Well, that’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard…” she laughs. “Unfortunately, most shrimpers see ‘co-op’ as some kind of communist plot, so that didn’t fly. What works right now is that we buy from them what they can’t sell wholesale. Some people still want to sell shrimp out of the backs of their pickup trucks, because that’s their choice. I’m not going to force anybody to do it our way. But the rest of us help each other out.”

Furthermore, Cindy encourages other shrimpers not to cave to price-gouging attempts by wholesalers. “I’m kind of the Lone Ranger in that regard. If we can all stand firm on value, it makes it worth everyone’s while to go out.”

Tarvin also seeks feedback from chefs, striking up conversations while she makes deliveries to discuss shrimp quality and the success of freezing and packaging techniques. She offers local shrimp-lovers a CSF (Community Supported Fishery) in which you pay for your shrimp ahead of season at competitive prices (akin to what you would pay at the grocery store, sometimes cheaper), then pick up fresh batches on a regular basis throughout the summer season. Business is steady. Locals regularly appear impromptu at the warehouse, even in off-season. Dispensing with the usual pleasantries, the first words out of most visitors’ mouths are, “Got shrimp?”

Michael Brown’s wife Erica and Cindy assist a walk-in customer.

CALL OF THE WILD

Shrimping isn’t for everyone. “There’s a lot of downtime out on the boat,” says Cindy. “Some people would get bored out of their tree.”

Yet anyone who loves the sweet, briny, tender flesh of these little crustaceans should give thanks that there are veterans like Magwood, newcomers like Vasa, and innovative business minds (and devoted mothers) like Cindy, dedicated to supplying us all with a steady fresh catch.

As for Vasa, he looks quite at home pulling in nets for the day, hopping up like a billy goat and balancing effortlessly on slippery wooden railings, a short fall away from becoming a tasty dessert for his loyal shark fan club.

“Vasa is a water person, just like me,” says Magwood. “It’s in my blood. I can’t get it out. He may not talk a lot (he typically doesn’t answer the radio, only texts). But the ocean suits him. Here, Mother Nature calls the shots. You’re out there on the water with God. It’s God’s place.”