Willie Hillery has seen many ups and downs in his 40 years of shrimp fishing in Brunswick, but a sudden drop in the number of shrimp caught this December in state waters was surprising.
“This year we had a pretty good season, until December,” Hillery said.
That’s why the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is closed state waters - up to 3 miles offshore - Monday.
It means shrimp fishermen, including Hillery, now have to head farther to sea for federally managed waters to ply their trade.
The closing is not a problem for Hillery, because he knows shrimp populations will have a better chance to grow come spring.
“It’s like life - you can’t always count on it being good,” Hillery said.
Monday was the earliest state waters have closed since 2000, according to Jim Page, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
He said the closing was prompted by surveys of shrimp catches this month that have been more than 80 percent lower than long-term averages.
With so few food-size shrimp being caught, Page said it was imperative to close state waters so the spring’s spawning season can produce quality catches.
Why the numbers have been low is a mystery.
“We really don’t know exactly why they have been down,” Page said.
He expects there are several contributing factors, the greatest of which is likely black gill, a protozoa that attaches to shrimp and makes them more susceptible to diseases by lowering their defenses.
“We are pretty confident it has contributed to the declining abundance of shrimp,” Page said.
Higher than normal salinity levels and warmer than normal water temperatures also are likely pushing shrimp out of the area, something that happens often, he said.
Page says there has been a noticeable drop in the amount of effort shrimpers are putting forth. As shrimp catches decline and fuel costs rise, Page says shrimpers are having to cut back on the number - and length - of trips they take.
“A lot of them are having to fish smarter and to be more selective,” Page said.
It is something Hillery knows all too well. He remembers when fuel prices were as low as 15 cents a gallon and filling the 3,000-gallon tank in his boat, The Three Sisters, was reasonable.
Today, with prices closer to $4 a gallon, Hillery says making even a short trip requires a strong catch to make it worthwhile.
Rising costs have led to fewer shrimpers who fish year round, he said.
Frank Owens, owner of City Market, a seafood store in Brunswick, says the early closure and fewer number of shrimpers have forced him to think ahead.
“Knock on wood, I’ve never had to buy imported shrimp,” Owens said.
He is able to weather slumping shrimp catches and early closures by freezing large numbers of local shrimp caught during the high points of the season.
Owens also can find shrimp to buy from fishermen who go farther off shore during the state’s off season.
“We should be able to make it this year, too,” Owens said, adding that he is hoping for a strong spring, when the season opens in state waters.