The South Carolina Shrimp Processing & Seafood Company

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  S.C.Shrimpers Pin Hopes

As importers put locals out of business, plans get the attention of those still in the industry
By Peter Frost -

Hilton Head— For the past decade, the shrimping industry in South Carolina has been in serious decline, and it’s not because there are fewer shrimp in coastal waters. But a proposed shrimp-processing plant in Williamsburg County is offering a glimmer of hope for the state’s remaining shrimpers.

“We hope and believe that this can turn it around,” said Georgia Tisdale, marketing director of the S.C. Shrimpers Association. “It could create a brand-new market for shrimp and help us stay in business.”

In a meeting on Johns Island that’s expected to be heavily attended by the state’s shrimpers next week, AgraTech International, the company building the plant, will attempt to broker a mutually beneficial deal with shrimpers to keep their product in the state, said Richard DeMarco, the company’s CEO.

The nearly $5 million project includes plans to build a plant that would clean, process and package shrimp for commercial resale. It would operate alongside a shrimp-byproduct engineering facility that would transform discarded shell material into a product called chitosan, which has potential commercial and biomedical uses.

The complex could help reverse fortunes for state shrimpers. A flood of cheaper imports has pushed down the price of America’s most-consumed shellfish in recent years, and rising fuel and equipment costs are keeping local trawlers tied to the docks instead of in the Atlantic, casting nets.

Add to that the lack of full-service shrimp-processing plants in the state, meaning local harvesters have to ship some of their catch all the way to the Gulf Coast for processing, and their financial picture isn’t pretty.

An estimated 75 percent of shrimp boats operating five years ago are gone. In 2000, the state’s shrimpers hauled in more than 6 million pounds. In 2005, the catch was just more than 2 million pounds. And this year, the numbers aren’t looking much better, according to data from the state shrimpers association.

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For years, area shrimpers have viewed a full-service processing plant in the state as a potential savior for the limping industry; it could help reduce transportation and production costs and get locally harvested product back into area restaurants and groceries.

DeMarco said financing for the project is mostly in place, and the plant should be completed by the start of the commercial shrimp harvesting season in June 2007.

“The state’s on board, the shrimping association is on board, and most of the shrimpers are on board,” he said. “If everyone works together, it’s common sense that this thing will work.”

Tonya Hudson-DeSalve, who manages the retail portion of Benny Hudson Seafood on Hilton Head Island, is optimistic the processing plant will breathe new life into the flagging industry and help struggling shrimpers fetch better prices for their harvests.

“I’ve got shrimpers falling by the wayside left and right,” she said. “Most of these guys are barely breaking even, and many of them are losing money with the higher price of fuel and the low cost of imports.”

Imported, farm-raised shrimp makes up an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of shrimp consumed in the United States. Most of that shrimp is farm-raised, so overseas producers have been able to undercut domestic prices because they’re not saddled with costs like boat maintenance, rising fuel prices and uneven harvests.

In effect, bulk shrimp prices have fallen as much as $3 to $4 per pound over the last five years, according to the shrimpers association.

Industry officials in the state hope that consolidating all local product at a local processor and distributor will encourage restaurateurs and grocers to pay higher prices for certified shrimp harvested in area waters.

“I would hope it could help bump up prices and help distributing this local product, which we all think is so much better than the imports you see served at so many restaurants on Hilton Head,” Hudson-DeSalve said. “I’m really excited for (the meeting). It’s the first great thing we’ve heard in years.”

Frost is a reporter for The (Hilton Head) Island Packet, a McClatchy newspaper




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