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Posted: January 17, 2014 1:55 p.m.

Ga. shrimping season worst in decades

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — One of the worst shrimp seasons in decades has Smith & Sons Seafood owner Walker "Big John" Smith Jr. fearing what will happen if his business has to suffer through another year like 2013.

Smith has been working in the shrimping industry 23 years, and says his family-owned company, which was started in Brunswick and moved to Darien in 1955, has never seen a season this bad in all its years of operation.

The company's McIntosh County facility saw an 80 percent drop in the shrimp harvest this season, which amounts to about $10 million in lost revenue.

"We can't take many hits like this again," Smith said. "We're able to handle some hits, but this is the biggest."

The Georgia shrimp industry suffered from a low population of shrimp last season, which is being attributed to black gill disease, which does not affect humans, and an influx of fresh water in the estuary after a rainy summer.

The disastrous season forced Smith & Sons into some tough decisions. Sometime this year or in 2015, its McIntosh plant will be closed and used only as an office and for company trucks.

"It's a heartbreaking situation, but it's a business decision that has to be done," Smith said. "We just don't have a volume of product through Georgia."

The scant shrimp population is affecting restaurants in McIntosh County.

Andy Morris, part-owner of Skipper's Fish Camp, 85 Screven St., Darien, says there was a time he would have four or five shrimp fishermen calling and asking whether he needed shrimp, but lately it's been harder to find people selling fresh shrimp.

"One phone call would get me 400 pounds of shrimp," he said. "Now, we're still buying from the same people we've always bought from. It's just not a lot. Everybody's fighting over what's available."

Morris says Skipper's has been lucky. The restaurant at the Darien waterfront is still able to have shrimp on the menu.

"So far, we've had enough, but who knows how long that will last," he said. "The fishermen say it probably won't be until April that they can start catching more shrimp, so hopefully we can last until then."

Richard Puterbaugh, president of the Georgia Shrimp Association, says it's a 50/50 chance shrimpers will recover from this disastrous season in the spring.

To help the local fishermen, the Georgia Shrimp Association is asking the state Department of Natural Resources to ask the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare a fishery disaster in its South Atlantic Ocean area. If that happens, shrimpers may be eligible for financial assistance or lower loan rates.

While the help would be welcomed, it won't make up for huge profits shrimpers lost, Puterbaugh said.

"It could've been a very productive year for our fishermen," he said.

Thanks to other sea life, like jellyfish, McIntosh County fishermen have been able to stay afloat.

The jellyfish are used to make jellyballs, which are in high demand overseas in Asian markets. Smith estimates that one boat can catch more than 135,000 pounds of jellyfish a day.

Wally Orrel, president of the Darien-McIntosh Chamber of Commerce, says the jellyfish market has helped offset some effects of the poor shrimp season.

"If the jellyfish weren't here, I think the fisherman would be in real trouble," he said.

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