The Last Trawlers

For generations, shrimp boats have plied the waters along Georgia’s coast. But as foreign seafood floods the market and gas prices soar, will this way of life be lost?

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Michael Boone can find the sea with his eyes closed. He peers into the black of 3 a.m. from the helm of the Little Man, hands on the pegs at ten and two, guiding the seventy-five-foot fiberglass trawler slowly down the narrow Darien River toward the Atlantic. The only light is a half moon and an electronic depth finder that throws the young captain’s reflection onto the pilothouse window. Michael barely looks at the instrument. He knows by heart every rock, every coil and curve of the grassy shore, every jut in the shallows and hunk of debris that lurks just beneath the calm, dark surface. He has run these eleven winding miles, in blinding rain and fog, since he was twelve and had to stand on a milk crate his daddy bolted to the floor so he could see over the wheel.

Michael Boone, captain of the Little Man; photograph by Jamey Guy

Michael’s feel for these waters reaches beyond his own experience. He inherited this path from his father, who learned it from his father, who learned it from his. Four generations of Boones, one of several families puttering out from Darien, a small town sixty miles down the coast from Savannah, to scour the ocean floor for shrimp. And other than a few tweaks in navigational technology and creature comforts like an air-conditioned cabin, the shorted-out TV in the back, and the clunky flip-phone that does little more than take calls and tell time in his pocket, Michael operates pretty much in a clearer snapshot of how his grandpa, Sinkey Boone, fished, the way so many men have shrimped off Georgia for more than sixty years. There aren’t as many of those men as there used to be. The Little Man slips past several boats, tow arms up, paint-chipped hulls barnacled, bobbing idly at dock along the river. More than 200 boats once trolled here. Now there are maybe half that. Buildings are shuttered, piers in disrepair. Darien is quiet. Some families, like the Skippers, have sold off their fleets and their docks. Others cling to the helm only because they have nowhere else to go. Michael started skipping school at age eleven to join his father on the boat. Today, at twenty-three, he is easily one of the youngest boat captains—perhaps the youngest—in these parts, an exception to a new Darien generation that has been steered away, if not discouraged by the old guard, from the sea, Michael’s two older brothers included. These waters, after all, are troubled. The price of gas is too high, the price of shrimp too low. The market has been flooded by competition from shrimp farmers, foreign and domestic. Wild Georgia shrimp are scarce at the neighborhood restaurant and grocery store. Worse, nobody seems to know enough about the homegrown variety to ask. And meanwhile the nets’ harvest is not as bountiful as it once was.

Michael Boone stares ahead, piloting the Little Man out of Doughboy Sound and into the ocean, choppy waters slapping against the hull. He gently opens the throttle, revving the ancient engine in the belly of the boat to life. Course charted, speed leveled at just over eight knots, Michael leans back in his captain’s chair. He holds the giant wooden wheel with an outstretched foot and rests his hands behind his head. Outside, the unseen sun traces the horizon with a thin white line as night lifts over a boundless sea.

In the distance, he counts one, two, three starlike specks scattered on the water—lights from the decks of other shrimping boats, working through the night. Michael can envision a much different scene from not so long ago, lights almost innumerable, a skyline at sea. “There used to be twenty, thirty, forty boats out there,” he says flatly. “Twenty years ago, this was a city.”

>> GALLERY: View photos of the shrimping industry in action

Back on the mainland, the city of Darien—population 1,900, seat of McIntosh County—is little more than a few streetlights whizzing by on a nighttime drive down I-95. But its position along a natural tributary, at the mouth of the Altamaha River, made it a boomtown in the 1800s and early 1900s. The river rafted large loads of longleaf pine and cypress from the Georgia interior into Darien to be milled and shipped around the world. In the 1940s, one of those log bundles floated a man named Tessie Boone from Tattnall County, two counties inland, to town.

By that time, more than a century of unfettered cutting had decimated Georgia’s timber industry. But Darien had already begun reinventing itself as a fishing town. The proliferation of gas-run trawlers empowered small fishermen to venture farther off the coast and reel in a commercial-sized catch, while refrigeration enabled them to ship it all over the country. The big ticket was wild brown and white shrimp that bred and fed on the bottoms just a few miles offshore. Tessie was hired as a crewman on local shrimp boats, and in 1946 he built his own, Altamaha I, cutting many of the planks by hand. All four of Tessie’s sons came aboard at a young age, and by the late 1950s, when the Boone boys were old enough to operate their own vessels, the patriarch started Boone’s Seafood, one of dozens of family-owned wholesale shrimp companies that popped up along the Georgia coast.

Unlike the family farms of the Midwest, where every hand was needed in the field or the farmhouse, shrimping tended to be a smaller enterprise, with just two or three men per boat—a captain, who decided when and where to fish, and one or two strikers to tend the nets—and a handful of men and women off-loading and processing the hauls back at the dock. As a result, shrimpers’ sons generally weren’t conscripted into service. But they went out anyway, kids ten and eleven ditching school to hop into the departing trawlers, eventually dropping out to work on the water. “If you don’t get into it young, you don’t get into it,” says Greg Boone, Michael’s dad and one of Tessie’s eight shrimping grandsons. “When the kids start insisting on going out and they don’t get sick, you know they’re going to get into it.”

When Greg was getting into it in the 1970s and early 1980s, big shrimp were fetching $6, sometimes even $7 per pound, and Georgia shrimpers were pulling in up to 6 million pounds each year. Gas cost fifty cents to a dollar per gallon, and after expenses shrimpers were easily netting $50,000 to $60,000 (about $130,000 to $160,000 today) fishing four months out of the year. Greg says he once cleared $18,000 in one day, the equivalent of around $40,000 in today’s dollars. “And we didn’t even get up until the sun was off the water,” he says.

The dull 7 a.m. sunlight seeps into the pilothouse, revealing Michael, lean and muscular in a dirty white undershirt and jeans. The console before him is cluttered with charts, half-empty water bottles, a blackened tobacco spittoon, a crinkled bag of SunChips, and, pinned above the windshield, a washed out Polaroid of his mother. Long divorced from his father, she owns a meat market back in Darien.

Below his mother’s picture is a recent photo of Michael and a young blonde holding a chubby baby boy. The woman’s name is April. Michael has never gotten around to marrying her, but “we might as well be,” he says. “I’ve been with her for six years.” The couple recently learned that they are pregnant again—a girl—one of several reasons Michael is impatient to stop working for his father and buy his own boat, the only real way to make money in this business. But even with so many shrimpers dry-docking their dreams, a working trawler still runs anywhere from $35,000 to $70,000, to say nothing of the cost of running it on diesel at $3.20 per gallon. Those $40,000 days are maritime myth now. 

What’s more, as a captain, Michael sees only 15 percent of the daily take, compared to the 65 percent that goes to the owner—Michael’s father, in this case. Michael wants his father to cut him a deal on the Little Man, but Greg Boone won’t hear of it. He’s been saying for years that Michael should scrape together what he can and buy a $10,000 clunker to fix up and make his own, just as Greg did thirty years ago. He’s told Michael over and over: If you want something bad enough . . . 

Michael calms the throttle to a hum at Blackbeard Hole, a stretch of water between the Georgia coastline and Blackbeard Island, a couple of miles from the mainland, eleven miles northeast of the dock. Federal-controlled seas (those beyond three miles from shore) are open to shrimping year-round, but coastal waters are typically closed until late April, until the shrimp have laid their eggs and the larvae have begun moving in to feed on spring plants that grow in the shallows and estuaries. However, because of last year’s long winter, Georgia didn’t open season until the end of June. Boatmen didn’t mind—the delay allowed their quarry more time to breed, feed, and grow. July was a strong month, but due to engine troubles, the Little Man was docked for all of August and September. Michael needs to play catch-up. “Left some shrimp here the other day,” he says, stretching and standing to rouse the crew.

He walks through the bridge, past his quarters and the bathroom and into the mess hall, outfitted with oven range, a sink, and a fridge full of sweet tea, hot dogs, eggs, and sliced ham—anything to avoid frying meat in the pot of stale oil sliding around on the rack in the oven. Built in 1975, the Little Man is wired and piped, although the crew flushes the toilet with a tin pot full of water. In Tessie’s day, these amenities were unnecessary, as small-town shrimpers left at dawn and returned before dark. But with radar for guidance and electronic chart plotters that can log what areas have been fished, Tessie’s descendants can stay out for days. Michael is often at sea more than a week, stuffing the cargo hold as full as he can.

Behind the kitchen are the crew’s quarters—a narrow cell with low wooden bunks. At Michael’s woo-hoo, twenty-two-year-old Tommie Hurst springs from his top bed. He’s new—a high-school friend of Michael’s who came aboard last July after a second DUI cost him his job with the Department of Corrections. Behind him is Tracy “Tray” Palmer, forty-seven, a divorced father of two who’s been a striker since he joined Michael’s grandfather on his boat thirty years ago. Tray takes his time, carefully leaving his Bible and a notebook on the bottom bunk.

On deck, Michael switches on an old winch, reeling in a steel cable on the starboard side attached to a sample sack—a net about the size of Santa’s bag, the contents of which will give the crew an indication of what to expect from the larger nets that they dropped at 5 a.m. Tommie and Tray guide the sack to the open deck and spill the contents: a pile of small fish, cannonball jellyfish or “jelly balls,” and sixty-six brown shrimp, most between six and ten inches long—a good sign. “It’s pretty,” Tommie says, picking out an eight-incher. “This one, you just want to arrr . . . ,” as he bites the head off.

The winch grinds as it winds thick steel cables that stretch to the end of twin sixty-four-foot tow arms, pulling the nets from the shallow sea. On each side emerge two quarter-ton steel doors, nine-by-four-foot plates chained together at an angle to form a kind of plow. For the past two hours, the boat has been dragging the doors along the sea bottom, some five to seven feet down, dredging shrimp that dwell there up and into the nets towed behind them.

The nets, bursting with the day’s first catch, are hoisted out of the water and emptied over the deck, forming a writhing, two-foot mountain of white fish, sunfish, blowfish, jellyfish, jelly balls, rays, eels, and crabs. The strikers pick out the light brown, almost translucent shrimp, separate the heads with a quick pinch of thumb and forefinger, and throw the meaty torso and tail in a basket. Shrimp are actually worth five cents more head-on, but they’ll keep that way for only three days, and Michael is hoping for a weeklong haul. The strikers work with honed efficiency, but still not fast enough for the other fish, the bycatch, which are picked off by the dozens of gulls and pelicans or are left to flop and slowly suffocate. The waste would be worse if not for Michael’s grandfather, Sinkey, who developed the TED (Turtle Excluder Device) or “Georgia Jumper”—a chute attached at the tail-end of each trawl that diverts larger fish, horseshoe crabs, and sea turtles before they get caught in the net. In the 1980s, the government made TEDs mandatory on every vessel.

When the baskets are full, the bycatch is swept into the sea, and the shrimp are lowered into the hold, rinsed in water and the preservative ammonia bisulfate, and packed in ice. Meanwhile, the doors and empty nets return to the ocean bottom and the process starts anew, over and again until dark—unless the captain deems the daylight pickings too slim and resolves to keep at it through the night.

As the sun sets on the Little Man, after sixteen hours of shrimping in Blackbeard Hole, Michael estimates that they’ve pulled in a bumper crop of more than a thousand pounds of shrimp. Even at just $5 a pound (barely two-thirds the price of thirty years ago, not factoring for inflation), that’s more than $5,000 for one day. To celebrate, the crew dines on a boxed Thai noodle mix spruced up with a couple dozen ocean-fresh Georgia shrimp.

In the late 1970s, while everyone with a boat seemed to be trawling a small fortune from the sea, landlubbers cut into the game. Arizona, Texas, and Florida started cultivating their own shrimp in ponds year-round. Without the overhead of boats, nets, and gasoline, farmers could sell their shrimp at a lower price. And when equatorial countries like Thailand and Ecuador got into the shrimp-farm business—penny-paid labor and lack of government regulation making their product still cheaper—the U.S. market began to flood. Prices tumbled. In 1980 farm-raised shrimp constituted 2 percent of the world’s shrimp production. By 1991 that number was 25 percent. Today 90 percent of all shrimp eaten in the U.S. are imported, and nearly half of that are raised in ponds.

Meanwhile, the local shrimpers’ struggle to compete has been exacerbated by the rising cost of gasoline. In a weeklong trip, Little Man’s engine will gulp down about 1,500 gallons. At $3.20 per gallon, that’s almost $5,000, which means it will take 1,250 pounds of shrimp just to cover fuel, to say nothing of the other equipment, from the $40 rubber boots to the $1,200 nylon nets. Throw in 10 percent of the take for each striker and another 15 percent for the skipper, and it’s easy to see why the boat owner sweats as much as the crewmen. And what happens when something goes out on one of these old boats, like an engine blows or, God forbid, the nets just don’t find the shrimp? “Things are tight, it’s easy to fall behind,” says Greg. “And with a little bad luck, you can’t catch up.”

With far fewer boats trolling these waters than thirty years ago, one might think there’d be more shrimp for the taking. But even though scientists say the brown and white shrimp populations have held steady, average annual hauls are down by more than a third, sometimes half, of what they were in the 1980s. Shrimpers acknowledge the practical explanations: fewer boats going out, therefore fewer bringing in, and fuel costs limiting the area covered. The weights of the harvest are mostly self-reported to the state by the shrimpers, anyway. But something about being at sea for days at a time tends to make these men superstitious. They don’t throw back debris caught in the trawl for fear they might run into it later. To avoid tempting fate, they don’t harm the gulls that squawk incessantly and coat the boat with droppings. And they often pick their dragging spots by following a feeling in their gut. So when the nets come up light or empty, shrimpers may wonder what they’ve done to anger the gods.

But for the moment, the luck of Darien shrimpers is holding. Even though the harsh 2010 winter killed off too many shrimp to enable South Atlantic shrimpers to take advantage of Gulf Coast competition idled by the BP oil spill, 2011 was warmer, leaving a larger crop and more time in the fall to harvest it. Local wholesalers like the Boones, who sell almost all of their catch to outside distributors, found a new buyer out of Tampa who was steadying his price for jumbo shrimp at right around $5 a pound. That, combined with a temporary leveling-off of gas prices, made for a good year. Still, Darien shrimpers will tell you that if they hit another snag like the early 2000s, when fuel prices soared and shrimp prices dove, it may put them all out of business for good.

In his ledger, Michael crunches the numbers: He figures Little Man’s haul from the first day of this voyage will fetch $4,850 back at the dock. That’s $485 for each striker and $727.50 for Captain Michael. A good day.

But then, on the day’s final haul, one of the nets gets torn, snagging on a submerged rock formation that Michael didn’t have on his charts. This earns a cell phone chewing-out from his father and a chance for the young captain to practice his sewing skills, hand-patching the hole with a spool of black thread—one of the many money-saving skills every true shrimper needs. In the name of budget-streamlining, Michael has shimmied out on the trawling arm over heaving seas to save a $150 set of doors, nearly sliced open his hand rethreading a $400 steel cable, even wrestled a $5 fish from the gullet of a stowaway pelican (although, admittedly, the latter was on the principle of the thing). Greg says that his son knows “about two-thirds of what I knew when I was his age. Two-thirds of what Michael needs to know to own his own boat.”

The torn trawl is an omen. The next morning, the crew oversleeps. The sample sack is little more than a few dozen shrimp among a mass of jelly balls, and the first catch, not hauled in until 9 a.m., is correspondingly light. Michael collapses in his captain’s chair and offers an off-key chorus: “Mama said there’d be days like this . . . ”

Tommie plops down on his stool, shades on, earphones in, hovering over his pile like a poker player. Across from him, Tray sits, legs straight out, popping shrimp heads with practiced repetition. “I like being out here,” he says, looking out at the broad blue sky, fingers snapping heads all the while. “It gives me peace of mind. Clarity.”

But up in the pilothouse, Michael finds anything but. He is poring over charts and maps, scouring his memory for where the shrimp might be waiting. The only “science” he has to go on is the knowledge that during low tide like this, shrimp tend to cluster, and that the later it is in the year, the farther out they are likely to be. He has a map marked with the places he has tried before. Beyond that, the hunt is pure intuition. And Michael can pick any patch of blue on the map—there is no such thing as territory among shrimpers. No one owns the sea. Besides, because of the way shrimp gather on the uneven ocean floor, rippled with little trenches and holes where bottom-dwellers can hide, one trawler can drag right beside another and catch three times as many shrimp.

By 2:30 in the afternoon, the Little Man has pulled in only 300 pounds of shrimp. Tommie and Tray, who have both worked with Greg, joke openly about the elder Boone’s unpredictability, about how he will often abort a bad drag on a whim, pull up his nets, and motor to another spot. They laugh that he would’ve quit Blackbeard Hole a long time ago. But the crew knows that the son is the photo negative of his father. They know Michael intends to drag this spot until he hits pay dirt, even if it takes all night.

And indeed, as the distant shore swallows the sun, the bright fluorescent lamp atop the mast of the Little Man joins the three or four others scattered across the black sea. The winch grinds, the doors dive, dragging the trawls again across an invisible floor. Tommie hits the mess for a snack, while Tray remains on the empty deck, savoring the disappearing horizon. And as night reclaims the unlit pilothouse, Michael waits, staring into nothingness, groping for a clue as to what may lie in the darkness beneath.


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Comments

  1. paige

    April 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    Best story yet on the life of a shrimper.

  2. E

    April 11, 2012 at 3:14 am

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen in Atlanta Magazine, the sort of writing I would love to see more like. The only thing I can recall that comes close is March 2011′s The Old Lady of Ossabaw. Although it was more than just the coastal content that attracted me to those pieces, I would certainly love to see more about the Golden Isles, particularly Saint Simons and perhaps Jekyll.