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Independent Seafood: From dock to table

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

John Harriott was preparing for the ride home to Atlanta this week after visiting his ailing father on Sandy Island. He had just one more stop he had to make: Independent Seafood in Georgetown.

Harriott bought a bag of jumbo shrimp to take home. Atlanta has nothing like the white cinder block building at 1 Cannon St. where shrimp trawlers unload their catch fresh from the sea.

Shrimp boat captain Mark Galloway from Supply, N.C., unloaded a ton of shrimp, his first inshore catch of the year, at Independent Seafood a few weeks ago. Dock owner Glennie Tarbox and employees were icing the big, white roe shrimp as quickly as they came off the boat. Galloway and his wife had headed the shrimp themselves to help the price.

When the phone rings at Independent Seafood employee Tracy Collins expects it to be someone asking when the next shrimp boat is scheduled to unload. “We don’t know,” she says. “It might be an hour or it might be two days.”

Shrimper Timmy Jordan stopped by Independent Seafood Monday to get ice before going to sea. “Trying to beat the storm,” he told Tarbox. “I got one or two days.” A tropical storm is due to hover off the South Carolina coast, bringing rain and wind.

Whatever he catches will sell quickly. The week of July 4 is the busiest of the year at Independent Seafood.

Collins said the early season white roe shrimp are running a little small so far. With heads on, they are selling for $3.99 a pound. The big shrimp caught further out in the ocean are the premium: $11.99 a pound. That’s what most customers want.

Richard Thomas of Georgetown was loading up on the jumbo shrimp Monday. He was driving to Chicago to visit his children, and they always insist he bring fresh shrimp. He discovered Georgetown and Independent Seafood when he was sailing and retired to the seaport town.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources delayed this year’s opening of trawling in state waters to assure the white shrimp had time to mature and spawn. Shrimp season typically opens in May after the peak spawning period when a single shrimp can lay a quarter-million eggs. The unusually cool spring this year resulted in slower growth and development than normal, scientists said. The white roe shrimp season generates the most value for fishing effort with early season prices relatively high. The brown shrimp season typically occurs during the summer months, and the larger fall white shrimp season, composed of offspring from the spring roe crop, begins in late summer and ends in early winter.

This year’s seasonal delay is part of nature’s ebb and flow that has guided Independent Seafood for 75 years. D.C. Simpkins and Herbert Tarbox started buying shrimp from independent boat captains in 1939 and selling it retail. With jobs still lagging from the Depression, men were willing to try their hands at shrimping and converted boats for the purpose. The Naomi was an oyster boat, the Stella, a fishing smack, the Lydia, a sailboat, and the Jeanette, a tugboat.

“Back in those days,” Glennie Tarbox said, “they pulled a 40-foot net with a rope rig.” Military surplus landing craft engines were converted to use by shrimpers. Advances in refrigeration allowed them to preserve the catch longer at sea. Tarbox said there were 20 or 30 boats using the Independent Seafood docks in shrimping’s heyday. Independent Seafood started in a small building beside the present-day block structure, originally an oyster cannery, Tarbox said. The owner from Virginia lost his oyster leases and closed.

Two factors have put the squeeze on the industry: rising fuel prices and falling shrimp prices. Tarbox remembers when diesel fuel sold for 18 cents a gallon. It’s $3.50 now. And foreign farm-raised shrimp have depressed retail prices.

Shrimp caught in the wild are better, said Georgia Tisdale, marketing director for the S.C. Shrimpers Association. They are low carb, low fat, low calorie and a good source of protein, she said, and they have more taste. As the bumper sticker says: “Friends don’t let friends eat imported shrimp.”

The problem for consumers, Tarbox said, is finding authentic ocean shrimp. Most grocery stores stock imports despite claims that their products are local. One woman shopping at Independent Seafood this week said she had just come from a chain grocery at Pawleys Island after she saw shrimp from Argentina in the display case.

Having access to shrimp right off the trawler is a blessing that few communities enjoy. Madeline and Tim Blackwell of Greenville own a second home near Georgetown and buy fresh fish and shrimp twice a week at Independent when they are at the coast. “It’s the only place we buy seafood,” Blackwell said. And their grandson loves to visit the store’s fish-mooching egret Wilbur.

Vacationers often make Independent Seafood their first stop, stocking up for a shrimp boil to begin their beach week in style, according to employee Trevor Morris.

Sometimes, it’s the last stop. Morris said some unlucky fishermen bought $210 worth of grouper and flounder to take home Monday after they had no luck in a northeast wind offshore.

Other business news: Lowes: Supermarket offers “concepts” along with food

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