Sweet Savannah Shrimp
by Natalisa Strickland
Savannah shrimp has been a local victual enjoyed since the early 19th century; back then cotton and rice were among Georgia’s leading industry. Shrimp was a staple for coastal plantation slaves, and it was wonderful protein for hard-working folks at the end of the day. Most slaves also had a portion of corn meal, Grits and Shrimp, or Shrimp and Grits no matter how you say it, it is one of the best shrimp dishes that continue to be a favorite today.
Shrimping in the 20th century
Isle of Hope, Thunderbolt, Skidaway Island, and Tybee Island are some of the most renowned areas locally where shrimping thrived in the early 20th century. A summer Saturday afternoon on Isle of Hope would have the whole family out on the boat docks, taking turns throwing the cast net, and filling a bucket full to carry back to the house where everyone gathered with sweet tea, cucumber & vinegar salad and the picnic table lined with newspapers. Someone would start the fire, and the huge boiling pot would be filled with the fresh delicacy along with some onions, crisp ears of corn, potatoes and smoked sausage. A Low-Country boil brings people together. Neighbors and friends would drop by and everyone would sit outside into the night enjoying good food and fellowship.
Shrimp are found literally all over the world, and there are over 2,000 different species, such as Key West Royal Red shrimp, the pink shrimp of Dry Tortugas and of course Savannah’s sweet white shrimp as well as, the smaller brown shrimp that swim our waters every day.
Savannah and the entire Georgia coast is a wonderful estuary for the fragile yet ancient crustaceans that have been around since the dinosaurs. The ten mile ride out to Tybee Island across the marsh is a wonderful experience. Spring into summer the marsh grass on the way out to Tybee is golden green progressing to brilliant bright lime green in full summer. Fall through winter it is a rich array of ochre and sienna. Visit a local shrimp store on Tybee, and enjoy some wild Georgia shrimp for dinner, made in your own home.
Shrimp is the ‘wheat of the sea’, they are an ocean staple enjoyed by Red Snapper, Whiting, Black Drum, Bluefish, and many other marine critters. All you have to do is spend a day on Tybee Island, watch the shrimp boats on the ocean, and they will have a flock of seagulls overhead as well as dolphins doing flips behind the boat. There are several Dolphin tours available on Tybee Island, they are affordable and provide an opportunity to get up close and take pictures of the dolphins, and most often the tour boats are in close proximity to the shrimp trawlers.
Shrimp once considered a Southeastern regional fare boomed almost overnight after World War II into America’s favorite seafood, and only canned Tuna has been a close competitor. The 1950’s, brought technological advances in shipping, and made shrimp easily available anywhere overnight. Shrimp cocktails appeared on elegant restaurant’s menus from New York to California. This simple and abundant bait was now a luxurious gourmet delicacy. The trend continued, and the demand grew; it was not uncommon for a shrimp boat Captain to make $10,000 and upwards for a single haul back in the 70’s.
The shrimping industry was big money, and where there is a lot of money there are problems. The biggest was there were little to no regulations in place. By the 1980’s things started to change. Georgia waters were dotted with over 2,000 shrimp boats throughout the 1970’s, and by 2013 there were less than 200 registered shrimp boat Captains on the coast.
- ü In 1981 a Turtle Excluder Device or TED was created by Georgia shrimpers to filter out marine trash and cannonball jellyfish. During this time it was discovered shrimp trawls were a major threat to the sea turtle population. The trawl drags the bottom, so whatever is in the way of the net is caught. Sea turtles trapped in a net underwater for more than 30 minutes will die. The TED was a net insert made of steel, with bars surrounded by a frame that is placed near the back of the net, this allowed small turtles, jellyfish and other by-catch to escape out of the net through a top or bottom exit. Since 1981, it has been modified to allow for the big turtles to escape and American shrimpers refused to use the TED because it also allowed the shrimp to elude the netted trap. It was not until 2009 that Shrimp boats were forced by the Federal law to implement the use of TED’s on their nets. There is a steep fine levied up to ten thousand dollars for non-compliance.
- ü Another problem that occurred throughout the 1980’s, was a huge decrease in the number of shrimp in the water. The Georgia coast is filled with fast moving tidal rivers and winding shallow creeks, it is the only state that has gone to great extents to preserve the marshlands that are a part of the coastal barrier islands. These areas are the first place that chemicals and contaminates would enter the waterways. Georgia shrimpers felt certain that the waters were being fouled with pesticides and other chemicals. Each morning they got up at four to be on the boat by five cruising out to their “sweet spot” so at the crack of first light they could drop their nets into the salty sea. The end of the day often was not profitable, because of all the outgoing expenses, such as gas, employee pay, and other fees. They work the nets and collect the shrimp through the heat of summer and the cold of winter; sometimes coming in with less than ten pounds of shrimp for the day. Shrimpers had no recourse, they went to the state with their convictions and they were pushed under the water, so to speak! It was not until the 90’s that the Federal government intervened; providing loans and grants to suffering shrimpers. The numbers reflected throughout all the Southeastern regions as well as, 10 years of scientific research in such things as pesticide run-off, and the decrease of marine and land species in coastal areas. Problems continue today with pesticide run-off.
- ü A major setback for shrimpers also involved an increase in imported farmed foreign shrimp. . Shrimp farming was an idea that began in the 1950’s and by the 80’s technology had advanced, and there were even American shrimp farms popping up. Many people who visit Chatham County are not even aware that the shrimp dinner they are eating out is more than likely farmed shrimp from Peru or Thailand. It may even feel a little threatening to ask where the shrimp actually came from. Back in 2006 throughout 2007, there was a wonderful slogan created; whose author is a Tybee Island Shrimp boat Captain. “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Imported Shrimp”. This began the education process to the community of people and tourists who visit Savannah each year. American farms realized the difficulties with containing a species to a small area, and many have shut down because they feel that it is not environmentally wise. In foreign countries such as Thailand, China, and Ecuador there is little enforcement of international regulations, such as drugs given to the shrimp for disease and sickness, and over-populating spawning areas. A visit to Savannah would not be complete without having authentic Georgia Wild Shrimp. It has been said to be some of the sweetest shrimp throughout the world. Savannah has many international travelers who land on our shores at an estimated 7 million visitors in 2011.
Visiting a shrimp store may be a little intimidating the first time around, there is always a strong briny rich smell in the shop, but persevere and ‘getcha’ a pound or two of shrimp to cook. Generally, the best priced shrimp and the freshest shrimp are the head-on. Many people prefer to have the head already removed, and rightly so, the shell is pretty hard to handle and getting stabbed and cut is part of the territory. Getting heads-off shrimp as of December 2014, the extra-large size was $13.95 a pound as compared to the heads-on boat mix at $3.95.
This is a good time to talk about shrimp size. The chart shows the smallest at 200-300 shrimp per pound commonly popcorn shrimp, which are fried to a crispy crunch and they are a delightful treat to pop right into your mouth. The extra large shrimp can be up to four inches in length and thick-like a man’s thumb. Four of these shrimp cooked for about 2 minutes per side on the grill is the perfect protein and shrimp contains Omega-3 oils, as well as important amino acids. Today local shrimpers need the support of the community more than ever. Georgia Shrimpers are dedicated to protecting our waterways and providing safe habitats for shrimp to continue to be a sustainable harvest. The competition with farmed shrimp prices means that restaurants can make a huge mark up selling a box of $2.50 a pound farmed shrimp for $25.00 a plate. Once you try Georgia wild shrimp you will never want farmed raised shrimp. Help out our shrimpers by simply asking local restraurants where they get their shrimp, and make a decision to eat only local wild shrimp.