story by david pena photos by tonya chester perry
Shrimp routinely tops the list as America’s favorite type of seafood. We love our shrimp grilled, fried, boiled, broiled, stir-fried and stuffed. However, if you think that most of the shrimp you eat is being harvested off U.S. shores and brought fresh into market, ala Forest Gump style, then you’re simply being misled. Today, the vast majority of shrimp come from industrial shrimp farms off the coasts of countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Ecuador, among others. These farms are plagued with the same problems as land-based confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs, all of which makes for a precarious state of affairs for local shrimpers, especially for the independent fishermen out there trying to make ends meet.
Despite this rather bleak outlook, two local shrimpers have found a way to “stay afloat,” as it were. Brian Anderson, along with his brother Steve, are second generation commercial shrimpers who have been selling and delivering fresh shrimp right off their family-owned boats for over 35 years. About four years ago, the Anderson brothers began Scuba Steve’s Seafood off of highway 80, a fresh, local seafood market, with the operative words being “fresh” and especially “local.” The enterprising siblings started the business out of an old storage rental place, and they recently discussed how the business originated, how the industry has changed over the years, and most importantly, how they’ve managed to survive in an industry rife with seemingly insurmountable odds against them.
Ever since the siblings were toddlers, Johnny Anderson would work all day at the railroad, and then pick up his sons after work to take them shrimping, teaching them the skills he’d amassed in his forty years of experiences on the sea. The pair now operate the business themselves, with each sibling having a distinct role to play. “I like to think of myself as the nuts and bolts of the business, while Steve makes it all customer friendly. Being the wittier brother, that’s his cup of tea,” Brian says with a chuckle. Steve returns the compliment, lauding his brother’s amazing work ethic. “With the exception of my father, Brian probably has one of the best work ethics of anyone I’ve ever met. Since he and I both grew up shrimping with my dad,” he states, “we pretty much learned everything from him. Then I kind of inherited his extensive customer logs, so I would take the orders and make deliveries to homes all over the Savannah area, delivering what my brother and dad had caught. The business really started from there.” Beaming with pride, Brian adds how shrimping actually helped finance his education. “I always shrimped with my dad part time back in middle and high school. In fact, when I was fifteen, I was running my own speedboat. Shrimping helped pay my way through grade school and Benedictine. Then it helped with college, so when I graduated, I didn’t owe a dime at all,” he proudly states.
While the Anderson brothers are now firmly entrenched in the industry that’s been integral to them since childhood, they both admit to going a more traditional route after college. Steve states, “Brian and I got our degrees from the University of Georgia and went our separate ways to work in the corporate world. We quickly found out, though, that if you’re not writing your own checks, you’re not really making a living while still answering to someone else.” Brian was further convinced to return to shrimping after a life-changing and unfortunate turn of events. Brian recalls, “Well, my first wife didn’t want to be married to a shrimper, so when we got divorced around 1999, I took my equity from the sale of the house and bought a thirty-five foot shrimp boat, which paid for itself in two years. Around 2001, I began shrimping full-time and soon added another boat. Now compared to (life in the corporate world), catching and selling shrimp is a piece of cake.”
These days, Brian generally works out of Lazaretto Creek, Tybee, Little Tybee, Hilton Head and Daufuskie Island. For about twenty days out of the month, Anderson is on the water, usually bringing in about 400-500 pounds of shrimp a day on average. Brian reveals how the brothers keep the revenue coming, even when the season ends. “I’m usually out there, except during the months of February through April, and even then you can go into federal (offshore) waters three miles out.” During those down months, Anderson plans to charter some boats along the coast using his captain’s license, while Steve reveals another trick of the trade. “To survive the winter months, we freeze some of the shrimp that we caught during the season in five gallon buckets to sell during our down time. That way we can ensure fresh, local product year-round. Plus I’ve learned from my short time operating this business that if you have a superior product, people will come to buy it,” but he adds with a gleam in his eye, “but it also helps if you have a brother who has his own shrimp boat.”
The Andersons also reflected on the the current state of an industry that they’ve been a part of most of their lives. “The commercial fishing industry is dying in the United States. We’re at a disadvantage because we’re not really competing against the shrimpers in Asia and Ecuador; we’re competing against the governments which subsidize production of shrimp over there, be it pond raised or (through the use of) slave and child labor. These countries also allow the use of antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides, which (the U.S.) has strict regulations against. Then they’ll ship the shrimp overseas with no restrictions and very little testing,” he emphasizes. Steve comments on another important variable in the life of a commercial fisherman. “Most of your cost is in fuel, so when the fuel prices went up to over $3.00 a gallon for diesel, that forced many commercial fishermen out of business. By the time you paid for your fuel, your boat and health care, you wouldn’t have anything left over,” he states. “We can always raise the price of our shrimp, but if the price of domestic shrimp gets too high, the restaurants, especially the chains, will just buy the imported shrimp. They can dress it up in batters and seasoning, so no harm done as far as taste is concerned, but people come to Savannah to eat our local shrimp. Believe me, that’s not what they’re getting most of the time.”
Amazingly, the Andersons have managed to stay afloat in an industry rife with heartaches and pitfalls. Their previous lives in the corporate world aside, this is in their blood. Brian jokes, “It’s funny because I was telling another shrimper the other day that I could put on a coat and tie tomorrow and go back to the corporate world, going toe-to-toe with anyone, but that’s really not what I want to do. I like to get out there and be paid to go hunting and fishing.” To offset the inundation of foreign products into the U.S. market, the Andersons believe that commercial fishermen need to rebuild their own retail market, invest in multiple boats, and operate with a reliable customer base. “That’s why we started our business. An independent shrimper really has little chance of competing. I’d be out of business if I didn’t have an outlet to sell my shrimp, but we’re doing alright so far,” Brian somberly notes.
Commercial shrimping defines the look and the feel of the Georgia coast, and Georgia shrimpers like the Anderson brothers, as well as the shrimp they catch, are generally perceived to be among the best in the nation. The shrimping tradition in our state is an old and proud one, and it is Georgia’s most important connection to the life of the sea. Making a living from the sea is one of the most ancient and esteemed pursuits of man, and despite the Andersons’ relatively short stints in the corporate world, Steve explains what enticed them to return to the shrimping industry. “It’s funny. Brian has a degree in marketing, and I have an economics degree, and we’re now back to doing what we did as kids. I guess it’s in our blood.” Ironic? Perhaps, but not so long ago, when you claimed that someone was a good fisherman, that was high praise indeed. Today, however, that praise takes on a whole different signification because, like Brian and Steve Anderson, the commercial fisherman may just be the last of a dying breed, at least in this region of the country.