In just about every state that borders an ocean, fishing communities spend March and April preparing their boats for the season of bounty: fishery managers open the waters to harvest, restaurants up their seafood game and families flock to the shore to dig in on the local catch.
This Wednesday at 8 a.m., South Carolina’s shrimping season was opened. Like the first sighting of white pants and topsiders, it’s a reliable indicator that tourist season is upon us.
But this year will be an exception to the norm.
My dog, Honey, and I checked in with the folks over at Tarvin Seafood to see how they were faring amid all this uncertainty. Maybe a backstory would give light to what the future might look like for this local shrimp company.
We met up with Vasa Tarvin, captain of f/v Miss Paula. Before boarding the boat, we were greeted by a door mat welcoming my dog but not so much anyone else: “Dogs Welcome (people tolerated)”. Vasa is well suited for the current demand of social distancing.
Last fall, he kindly offered his boat to the South Carolina Aquarium for a climate change resilience discussion with Congressman Cunningham and local seafood allies. While many of us gathered on the deck to share concerns about the future of fisheries, Vasa remained in the wheelhouse to man the helm (never mind the fact that we were tied to the dock). When the crew from CBS’ “This Morning” came down from New York to feature an all-Good Catch cast discussing the sustainable seafood scene of Charleston, Vasa graciously took us out on the harbor for filming but confined himself to the captain’s chair.
Despite his penchant for seeking solitude, Vasa has played a key role in shaping the sustainable seafood landscape of Charleston. I’m sure the last part of that sentence will come as a great shock to him.
So there I sat on the wheelhouse floor, taking in the sounds of seabirds and the Johnny Cash lyrics spilling from his radio, wondering how to approach an interview with Shem Creek’s most elusive fisherman. A recent post on his Facebook gave me hope: “Quiet people are actually talkative around the right people.” I guess I was the right people.
Here’s what I learned:
Vasa began fishing when he was twelve. Paula Urbano, one of his teachers and the boat’s namesake, saw something in Vasa and knew he belonged on the water. He was introduced to Wayne Magwood (the guest of honor at last fall’s Good Catch dinner at NICO Oysters + Seafood) and from then on, every summer Vasa took to the deck of Charleston’s most famous shrimp boat, f/v Winds of Fortune (as seen in Darius Rucker’s music video, “Come Back Song”). When Vasa graduated school, Wayne found him a boat that was custom built for a 5-foot-2 local fisherman. It was a snug office for Vasa’s lumbering 6-foot-4 stature, so they lowered the floor in the wheelhouse so he could stand up straight. And just like that, Vasa became captain of his own boat and Tarvin Seafood was born. The Tarvin family had no idea at the time that Vasa’s summer gig would grow to become an iconic pillar of the Lowcountry’s seafood community (and an important supplier of local shrimp to the many animals at the South Carolina Aquarium).
The fresh coat of turquoise paint on the deck reminded me that boat maintenance was coming to a close. I asked about the opening of shrimping season.
“Before the season opens they do testing,” Vasa says. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) take samples to measure water temperature and assess the shrimp, checking for how many came up in the trawl, their size and how many are still carrying roe. Together, these variables determine when the season will open. Once the verdict is made, a call goes out letting fishermen know they have a week. Vasa says when it’s time, “You better be ready.”
Historically the season opener has been in May, but the last few years have brought warmer winters, shifting the season up a few weeks. An April start has become the new normal. But when I looked across the dock and saw one of SCDNR’s trawlers next to us, I noticed there was no net. It didn’t look like it was getting ready for shrimp testing. Maybe normal schedules had been slowed by pandemic precautions.
Turns out, this is exactly the case. For the first time in many years, the opening of South Carolina’s shrimping season was not guided by springtime shrimp testing. Rather, this year, shrimp data from trawls earlier this winter were paired with local water temperatures to calculate the best estimate for when it’s time for shrimping to begin.
While everyone else’s lives and procedures are turned upside down, the fishing world carries on. This is what it means to be an essential employee. Communities must continue to be fed.
With the help of local fishermen like Vasa Tarvin, our families will be nourished with local seafood and we can continue avoiding the grocery store. Hopefully, by the end of this pandemic, we will be walking away with a new appreciation for our kitchens, our local food community and our ocean.
Tarvin Seafood is located on Shem Creek at the end of Haddrell Street. They are happy to supply your family with local shrimp while prioritizing health and safety measures. You may call ahead or text your order to (843) 324-5281. You are welcome to request the order be brought to your car.