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Grand Strand fishing industry looks to rebound from COVID-19 closures

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Capt. Lawrence Long and his crew hauled ice buckets and dropped reels into holders before sunrise.

The Long Line was lashed to pilings on the Little River waterfront while the crew waited for six passengers to take an hours-long trek on the charter.

“It didn’t affect us as bad as it did a lot of people because we can commercial fish, too,” said Long with Long Line Charters, referring to the COVID-19 crisis. “But I know the whole month of March, even the fish market was shut down, so we couldn’t do anything. You take away a month of income from anybody, that’s pretty bad.”

Long’s work is part of a sector impacted by the recent coronavirus pandemic.

His business is based on the Grand Strand, where the fishing industry makes up part of the economy and culture.

So far in 2020, more than 110 commercial saltwater fishing licenses have been issued to operators based in Horry County, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). There have also been over 130 licenses issued to operators based in Georgetown County.

For Long, offering charter trips and commercial fishing is his livelihood.

“This is it,” he said. “If we don’t make it happen here, it ain’t going to happen.”

Normally Long Line has 20 to 30 charters in April. All of them scheduled for last month, though, were canceled.

“They didn’t have anywhere to stay,” Long said of customers who revoked their bookings.

Not only have fishing charters and commercial fishing operations been affected, but so have seafood markets and local seafood restaurants.

And the industry has found ways to adjust.

Dylan Foster, one of the owners of Wicked Inlet Seafood based out of Georgetown County, said his company that sells to restaurants, markets and grocery stores shifted its business model.

“We had to,” he said. “We didn’t have a choice.”

Recently, the company launched an online store and home delivery service, even hiring someone to help with the deliveries.

“We call it dock to door in 24,” Foster said.

He praised community members for their support. Thanks to them, Foster said, those who are part of the 10 fishing operations he subcontracts can keep laboring.

“Twenty fishing families, including my staff, rely on us to provide their next meal,” Foster said.

Wicked Inlet has also held dockside sales in Murrells Inlet, which see customers drive up in their car to buy fish.

The company’s website and social media profiles contain updates for patrons, and customers can see fish caught on the boats themselves.

All of the fishermen who are hired are local.

That includes Capt. Everette Silver from Pawleys Island, who operates the Wicked Tuna boat.

“We’ve been real fortunate,” he said. “I feel really blessed. A lot of people haven’t been able to work.”

Early on in the age of coronavirus, the situation seemed bleak.

Silver recalled being out on a fishing trip with two others for several days, returning with 2,500 pounds of product to find things shut down.

He credited word spreading on social media that led to fish being sold off his boat.

“You have to be adaptable,” Silver said. “I’ve been fishing for 35 years. A lot of closures and a lot of regulations come into play.”

In Myrtle Beach, the Mr. Fish seafood market, which also has outdoor dining, has offered a promotion in which a customer who buys two pounds of fish gets toilet paper for free.

For Ted Hammerman, who co-owns the market and a restaurant that is also under the Mr. Fish banner, the outbreak has been another disaster.

The establishments were affected by hurricanes last year and in 2018, resulting in what he estimates is a six-figure hit between both of them.

More recently, the restaurant closed for six weeks as a result of a directive from Gov. Henry McMaster, and the market also saw slower business. As soon as the coronavirus hit, he saw caterings and parties cancelled.

“And we just came out of a really rough winter,” Hammerman said. “It’s tough. It really is. I’ve been doing this game for 40 years, and it gets kind of weary on a human.”

For a lot of businesses in the city, about 100 to 120 days between Easter and Labor Day are crucial for making money.

Even during a pandemic, Hammerman still has to pay expenses such as rent and workers’ compensation insurance premiums.

Recent violence in Myrtle Beach and the resulting impact on the city’s image doesn’t help, either, he said.

One of the only things that’s given the operation a shot in the arm is a small business loan from the new federal Paycheck Protection Program. Still, finding workers can be hard. With many staying home and collecting unemployment, Hammerman wonders what the impetus is for going back to work.

In response to the virus, local businesses like his are also taking extra precautions.

The Mr. Fish market and restaurant have stepped up sanitation practices and social distancing is maintained.

Hand sanitizer created with guidelines from the World Health Organization is even sold at the market.

Long says his business encourages charter passengers to wear face masks and started limiting charters to 12 passengers.

Looking forward, he and other members of the local fishing industry are hopeful for better days.

Recently, fishers noted they have caught grouper — noting grouper season began at the beginning of May — along with mahi-mahi, wahoo, tuna and vermillion snapper.

Restrictions have begun lifting for seafood restaurants in recent weeks, one of the markets that buy from local commercial fishing operations.

Wicked Inlet recently announced on Facebook the business was pausing its online ordering and home delivery services as tourists came into the area and those eateries opened.

Also, SCDNR announced Tuesday that biologists are forecasting a typical season for shrimp season. Commercial shrimp trawling opened in all legal South Carolina waters at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

“Despite the operational restrictions, market disruptions and uncertainties experienced by the U.S. commercial fishing industry this year due to the ongoing health crisis, Americans have demonstrated a clear demand for fresh local shrimp, and the apparent condition of the shrimp population in South Carolina’s coastal waters holds great promise for a productive fishery to help feed that demand,” a news release from the state agency said.

As for Hammerman’s businesses, they’ve seen a “slow rise” in patronage in recent weeks.

Hammerman said the seafood market’s business picked up significantly when stimulus checks began being issued, “like turning on the switch.”

The Mr. Fish restaurant normally seats 300. Though the business is “not crushing it” with indoor dining suggested to remain at 50% occupancy, that still lets a solid number of customers eat there.

“We’re OK,” he said.

The disruption of product coming in from trucks departing states outside South Carolina as well as from Georgetown is slowly lessening.

Long, the fishing charter captain, said “I know people are still a little weary about coming out and all this other stuff, so I’m hoping this will be a good summer.

“But you never know.”

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