By David Mickey
Late July is the local shrimp harvest, and Patty Plyler, who manages the fish house for the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association, is excited about the arrival of shrimp boats at the dock.
The “Grey Ghost” from Gull Rock on the Hyde County mainland is there and two boats from South Carolina, the “Parker D” and the “Miss Georgia.”
Patty’s husband, Hardy, says boats from Salter Path and Beaufort are also working in the Pamlico Sound.
“They’re getting shrimp right off Bluff Shoal,” Hardy reports. “It’s been a very good year for brown shrimp, at least so far.”
Down the street at Native Seafood, Farris O’Neal agrees.
“This has been a really good year,” he said. Native Seafood buys shrimp off several boats around the Sound.
The season that begins with brown shrimp in mid-summer will continue into the fall with white shrimp, or as they are referred to in the region, “green tails.” The shrimp caught this year were spawned two years ago in the Atlantic as larvae and depended on winds and currents to carry them to nurseries in the sound’s estuaries. As adults they must get past the trawlers’ nets to reach the ocean and repeat the cycle.
The earliest European visitors to the Pamlico Sound found Native Americans catching shrimp with seines and dip nets.
Commercial shrimping came much later when improved transportation and processing plants made export to distant markets profitable.
Today, North Carolina shrimp are second only to the blue crab in terms of economic impact. But domestic shrimp make up only 10 percent of the national market.
Most of the shrimp consumed in the United States are imported from Asia and South America and half of those are farm-raised. Aquaculture practices in those countries are largely unregulated and depend on the use of antibiotics and chemicals.
According to the non-profit Food and Water Watch, less than 2 percent of seafood imports are inspected. Incomplete or even misleading labels, add to the consumer’s risk of buying pre-packaged frozen shrimp.
Shrimpers in the Pamlico Sound on the other hand, must comply with numerous rules designed to protect not only the supply of shrimp, but also turtles and other species that can be caught in the shrimper’s nets. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries is the state agency responsible for developing rules for the industry.
Referring to the work required to comply with all the rules, Patty says you “almost need a lawyer and an accountant on the boat.”
One rule gives the shrimp a weekend to re-group. Referred to as the shrimps’ “date night,” boats must have their nets out of the water by 9 p.m. Friday and cannot resume trawling until 5 p.m. on Sunday.
For that reason, expect to see several trawlers tied up in Silver Lake on the weekends until the season ends in the fall.
Hardy sees those boats as an important part of Ocracoke. “Shrimp boats and the fishermen are part of the fishing village image that contributes to tourism here on Ocracoke. Local, wild caught seafood is part of the growing demand for local food and knowing where your food comes from,” he said.
With luck, the shrimp will remain plentiful and the boats will continue trawling the Pamlico Sound.
Then when this season draws to a close, Ocracoke freezers will have plenty of shrimp until next season when once again, everyone will be watching for the “Shrimp boats are in!” sign.