Originally created 11/28/98

Limitations have shrimpers steaming



PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. -- Charles Clark has fresh jumbo white shrimp selling for $4 a pound, heads on, and a prime spot at the north causeway and U.S. Highway 17.

Selling from the back of an old pickup truck, he has scales, plastic bags, ice -- and attitude.

Most shrimpers have the latter in spades, he says, laughing, because they live in a world conspiring against them. If it's not the weather trying to do them in, it's the politicians, or overly greedy captains of big North Carolina trawlers poaching in South Carolina waters.

Lately, Mr. Clark is steamed particularly about the state's treatment of channel netters -- 60 commercial fishermen who work out of small boats in Winyah and Santee bays. The state intentionally limits their number to 60.

The only way to get a channel netting license is to wait for someone to die or quit, then put your name in a lottery.

Mr. Clark is adamant that South Carolina should have opened the bays for channel netting in August instead of October. But the state waited until Hurricane Bonnie in late August had "sucked the bay dry," blowing all the shrimp out to the ocean, he says.

Then, to add insult to injury, he says, Hurricane Earl brought rain. "With five rivers dumping into Winyah Bay, it was like flushing your toilet," Mr. Clark says.

He is about to go into full-throttle railing against the politicians and state Natural Resources Department when a Mercedes with Virginia license plates pulls up.

He ices down 40 pounds for the well-heeled client before being hit by an onslaught of "nickel-and-dime" customers buying 2, 3 and 5 pounds apiece.

When the customers for his family's Bull's Bay catch dry up, Mr. Clark sits on the porch of a nearby hardware store in a rocking chair. Deeply tanned, he wears the costume of many local fishermen -- baseball cap, dark glasses strapped to his head so wind gusts won't blow them off when he's out on the water, jeans and white boots to keep his feet dry.

He says the shrimp in the bays in August were plenty big enough for the season to open for channel netting.

But the Natural Resources Department, even if it wanted to, couldn't open the season because the General Assembly has decided Sept. 1 is a reasonable opening date, agency spokesman David Whitaker said.

"The trawlers really get upset, so there's pressure to wait. It's not a biological decision; it's an economic one," Mr. Whitaker said.

Fishermen, and the state, make more money when the shrimp weigh more.

Without Bonnie, the season still would not have opened until Sept. 12 or Sept. 14, Mr. Whitaker said, and he disagrees that the shrimp were big enough in August to open the season.

Mr. Clark, however, said that back then shrimp in the channels were "like corn in the field ready to be picked."

He contends the state tilts its policies in favor of the big trawlers that operate in the ocean. Obviously they don't want channel netters taking their haul before the shrimp swim out to sea.

"It's politics," Mr. Clark laments. Mr. Whitaker doesn't disagree.

"The Legislature has historically wanted a firm hand on fisheries," he says.

Natural Resources may offer biological information, but the General Assembly makes economic and social decisions, such as access to waters, which group should have it and how long.

Other targets of Mr. Clark's wrath are what he interprets as the state's laissez-faire attitude toward North Carolina fishermen working South Carolina waters and recreational shrimp baiters.

He is impatient with arguments by state attorneys that it probably is unconstitutional to limit access.

"If we can't buy licenses up there, they shouldn't be able to buy them here," he says.

As for shrimp baiting, there's nothing wrong with recreational fishermen using bait balls to catch a few shrimp to put in their freezers, he said, but the state is allowing 17,000 baiters to catch as much as one 48-quart cooler per day during a 60-day season.

That's liberal enough to tempt some baiters into selling their catches, Mr. Clark says, "And when they go to selling, they cut into my catch."

Mr. Clark's spot is across the road from a seafood market.

"I know that guy over there hates me," he said, the emotion temporarily draining from his voice. "But I've got my licenses ... Talk about a stupid rule? I had to buy a walk-in cooler (to get a wholesale dealer's license), but it doesn't even have to work."