Fighting for survival

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Photo above: Charles Gay walks back to the fuel pump to pump diesel fuel to a waiting shrimp trawler. Despite losing 300 feet of dock to Hurricane Matthew, some of the old dock is still useable. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

Local shrimper still trying to recover after Hurricane Matthew

By Bob Sofaly

Gay Fish Company on St. Helena Island has survived just about everything man and Mother Nature has thrown at it. But when Hurricane Matthew came through last October, it may have been too much for the old shrimp dock to bear.

“It’s going to take a couple miracles to save us,” said Charles Gay, owner of Gay Fish Co. “I don’t know. We have seriously put it on the market to be sold (as a last resort). If it doesn’t sell, then we’ll have to do something.

“You used to could do all right,” he said of the shrimping industry. “It was fun. There were a lot of good people in it. There are still some good people in it. But it’s not like it used to be.

“I’m just tired.”

Gay said the dock was started by his father in 1948 on Ward’s Creek. They kept adding on to the dock a little at a time.

At its peak in the 1970s through the ’80s, Gay Fish Co. had 21 shrimp boats tied three abreast to the dock. Today there are three boats supplying Gay’s with shrimp.

Competition from foreign markets has taken its toll as well.

“I have a good friend who said he’d rather go to a grocery store and get whatever they got than drive all the way out here to get fresh shrimp,” said Gay.

Fresh and local just doesn’t mean as much, he said.

“Why would someone go buy groceries and then come all the way out here for shrimp?”

Gay said fuel costs, competition from foreign markets and declining catches make shrimping a tough business.

“People said we over-shrimped the area. That’s just not so.”

Gays blames the crowding of waterfront homes with their obligatory private docks and the endless numbers of golf courses springing up along the water and the chemical pollution they dump into the water for the smaller catches.

But it was Matthew that drove in the death nail.

“We thought the storm was going to stay 40 miles out to sea. So we left two shrimp boats tied to the dock. But then we heard it was coming into Pritchard’s Island. It was too late,” he said.

Gay said the boats themselves withstood the storm with little damage. But 300 feet of dock got destroyed in one night that took from 1948 to build.

“I can’t rebuild that,” he said, looking at the floor. “It will take more than $100,000 to fix just the dock.”

He said part of the roof had been ripped off and damage to the building itself pushed the cost to more than $300,000.

But Gay said he isn’t finished yet.

“If I close down, half a dozen good people will lose their jobs,” not to mention the boat crews and the part-time folks who head the shrimp.

“I’m going to keep my last three boats running on what’s left of the dock and stay open as long as I can and do what I can with what I got left and build it a little here and little there. I just can’t shut it down.”