Past Times

North Carolina shrimp was a really big deal

Fisherman Dolphus Thomson in 1979, one of the lean years. “Used to be … you could make some money shrimping, but it’s awfully hard now.”
Fisherman Dolphus Thomson in 1979, one of the lean years. “Used to be … you could make some money shrimping, but it’s awfully hard now.” N&O Staff Photo

The life of commercial shrimpers can be unpredictable, as supply and the market vary. In 1953, writer Wade Lucas presented an optimistic view of the industry from Morehead City.

Rested, ready and eager to get going after what some people down this way refer to as “white gold,” owners and operators of a large fleet of boats will be shoving off from various coastal points … in search of the wily shrimp that are now beginning to move in commercial quantities in State-controlled waters.

The shrimpers, who run into the hundreds, are quite naturally hopeful as they prepare to sally forth into the sounds and coves after the shrimp that usually find ready markets to the north as well as in the Tar Heel State. …

Numerous buyers, especially from the New York area, are always on hand to buy the bulk of the the shrimp catch. The shrimp that go to northern markets are iced and rushed northward on trucks.

Many Tar Heel shrimp go to processing plants in other states as there are few facilities for packaging them in this State. In such plants, the shrimp are usually breaded, frozen and then shipped to various parts of the nation. Many are returned to grocery stores for retail to homes and public eating places in North Carolina. The N&O May 10, 1953

By 1966, North Carolina shrimp was big business, as detailed by writer Frank Montgomery Jr.

It takes an awful lot of shrimp to make all those shrimp cocktails Tar Heels eat in a year’s time.

And to see that everybody in the Old North State gets enough of them, big and little shrimp boats, with some sort of trawl hung astern, pursue their quarry all through the year with zeal and gusto.

From Pamlico Sound clear down to the South Carolina line, both inside and outside Carolina coastal waters get a regular and thorough going-over by the State’s shrimpers as they seek to supply a demand that never seems to slacken.

Just how many of the delicious little tidbits of the sea the shrimpers will take during a given year varies, but it is usually well up in the millions of pounds. In 1965, for example, some 5.4 million pounds were caught by Tar Heel shrimp boats, and the proceeds from their sale fattened the shrimpers’ pocketbooks to the tune of $1.7 million.

Once a delicacy known only to the fortunate folks who lived by the sea, and comprising but a minor business at best, shrimping now occupies the No. 1 spot in dollar value for North Carolina fishermen. …

Traditionally, the shrimping season in North Carolina’s inland waters, as elsewhere in the South, opens when the shrimp have grown big enough for 40 of them (70 with the heads pinched off) to make a pound. …

Setting out on a hunt for shrimp, the average outside Tar Heel shrimper will head for the sort of bottom he knows the little jumping-jacks of the sea prefer. This may be mud, clay, sand or shell. Occasionally, when starting to shrimp, the boat captain will slip his big trawl over without more ado and begin dragging. Usually, however, he will throw over a “try” net, which is smaller and more easily handled than the main net. If big enough quantities are brought up in it, over goes the heavy trawl and the long, slow drag along the ocean floor gets underway.

Because the trawl is such a big, cumbersome affair and, at the end of a drag heavily weighted down with hundreds of pounds of small fish and other marine life from conchs to starfish, a power winch is used to haul it in. As soon as it’s aboard, the entire contents are unceremoniously spilled out upon the stern deck and the mean job (their spiny heads can really work a pair of hands over) of sorting out the shrimp begins.

Most shrimp boats – all of the bigger ones – bring their catches back to shore in well-iced holds. The shrimp heads are either pinched off on the boat or by workers at the dock. This is an important operation because spoilage occurs much more quickly if the heads are left on. The bigger the shrimp, the fewer it takes to make a pound and the higher the price. Since such price is based on the number to the pound, shrimp are sold by “count.” Some shrimp may be so large that such “count” may be 10 or even fewer to the pound.

It isn’t widely known, but fishing for shrimp in the open sea, the development that really made the shrimp fisher sure-enough big business, had its beginning right here in North Carolina. It came about around 1915, when some fishermen in the Beaufort area noticed unusually large shrimp being taken in a small otter trawl government biologists were using to collect marine specimens off Beaufort bar. Prior to that time, shrimp had been taken only in the State’s inside waters in shallow water. But once local fishermen realized what a bonanza in big shrimp was lying in the ocean’s deeper waters, they weren’t long in developing the forerunner of today’s great shrimp trawling gear. Commercial fishermen to the south lost little time in adopting the methods in use by Tar Heel shrimpers, and from then on the South’s lucrative shrimp industry began the climb to its present eminence as the most valuable of all commercial fisheries. The N&O May 8, 1966

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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