Shrimp, Then and Now – Still a Local Staple

By Rick Baumann

When I first got involved in the seafood business it was a part time endeavor to supplement my income. I was the “dockmaster” and “bait catcher” at a marina in old Murrells Inlet. I would rise early each day, well before sunrise, and make my way to the old Myrtle Beach Seafood store on Broadway (where Mrs. Fish is today). The market manager there, Gene West, would save me all the flounder heads from the previous day of fish cuttings so I could bait my crab traps. When I left Gene’s market, I would proceed down to the Inlet to retrieve some more bait from Nelson’s and Eason’s seafood markets where I had made the same arrangements.

The year was 1967, and all three of these markets differed greatly from those that can be found locally today. The variety of seafood available was a lot less diverse than the product lines of today’s local markets. Then, as now, fresh local shrimp was the star of the show. I specifically remember that jumbo white roe shrimp retailed for $1.39 a pound!

I spent many-a-night shrimping the Back Bay behind Kure Beach, North Carolina, with my father-in-law. In those days, there was no such thing as “head on shrimp.” No one would think of it. As soon as the nets were emptied and put back in the water, I got busy culling out the crabs and fish before heading all the shrimp and putting them in the cooler. There was no chemical preservative used back then either. It was not needed. Sodium Tri Poly Phosphate came along many years later after practices long utilized in the Gulf of Mexico were adopted by many local shrimpers to maximize profits on their catch. Utilizing this not-so-good chemical cocktail has now become commonplace. A great many folks have been duped into believing that shrimp are fresher if they are sold with the heads on. Not so. The overwhelming majority of shrimp boats stay out for many days in order to cover their operational costs. If they did not use considerable amounts of chemical preservatives on their heads-on shrimp, they would not have a sellable product to offer when they hit the dock.

Consumers would do well to note that leaving the heads on shrimp until the boat comes home also leaves the guts of the shrimp in contact with the plumpest part of the shrimp – the part that is consumed. The head and gut cavity also weigh a considerable percentage of the whole product – over 30% on average. So, a smart consumer will seek out shrimp which are headed at sea, thereby requiring less or no chemical preservative. They would also do well NOT to ask ,“When did these come in?” but rather “How long was the boat that caught these shrimp out to sea?”

When the boat came in is really insignificant when you take these things into account – as headed at sea shrimp which are properly cared for stay fresh MUCH longer than those which are not. All these things should be taken into account before buying shrimp from a white booted peddler on the side of the road who has little or no sanitary facilities (or regulatory oversight) – and a BS story that is a mile long. The big box stores and grocery chains have similar practices. Back when I started in this business the grocery stores didn’t carry seafood, and there were no big box stores. Now the box stores are everywhere trying to outdo the grocery chains – and they ALL have a seafood section. I have been approached by more than a few grocery chain “big wigs” who want me to supply all of their stores with fresh local seafood. Each time I have run into the impossible scenarios these folks insist on – like a six week advance notice on what I will be offering them – along with prices for same – so they can get it in their promotional material. Mother Nature does not conform to those parameters! The big box stores and grocery chains all sell on price – not quality. Even the so called gourmet chains sell shrimp from Southeast Asia and fish from China and Indonesia – because the frozen products offered by those folks CAN conform to their promotional schedule – AND they are much cheaper than fresh local product.

Getting back to the specific subject of shrimp – there are bumper stickers and other promotional material which say “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Imported Shrimp.” Well, I wish that was true. Fact is that, thanks to the pollution of our estuaries and oceans, only 4% of the shrimp sold in the world is caught in the wild! So, the other 96% is farm raised – and over 90% of that is imported! Local seafood markets are quite wise to all the illusions of the industry. Your local seafood markets are all pretty much family operated. They have to offer a better product than the big box stores and grocery chains. They have to be a cut above – AND they have to be very competitive, because there are so many of them.

Folks don’t realize the fact that, as high as seafood has gotten, the prices offered by local markets are well below national wholesale averages. Local markets also know that they can only sell the best – and I guarantee you that none of them are selling farm raised shrimp from Vietnam raise on pig feces – as a recent Facebook post scared everyone about. Local seafood markets, like mine, realize that selling nothing short of the best will serve them well. All of these markets are rigorously regulated and inspected by the authorities – and the quality that they offer is head and shoulders above the roadside peddlers, big box stores and grocery chains. Plus, the money you spend with them gets circulated back through our community!

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    3 Responses to “Shrimp, Then and Now – Still a Local Staple”

    1. Erika Hoffman says:

      What an informative article and so well written. I’ve always wondered about the cornucopia of fish available nowadays at supermarkets and large chains. Now I know! Just like textiles and furniture, we get our seafood from China!

    2. Linda O'Connell says:

      I love to read about the history of the area. Even though I am landlocked in the Midwest, your part of the country makes my heart sing. Great article.

    3. Rose Ann says:

      Great information! Some friends and I were enjoying a shrimp lunch at a waterside restaurant and asked the waiter if the shrimp had come off the boat docked near by. “No,” he said. “Out of a frozen bag from China.” I always ask first, now!

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