Seafood in the South
Government regulations designed to protect and sustain fish populations have restricted commercial catches of red snapper and other fish along the Atlantic coast – a challenge for fishermen, distributors and restaurants.
If you love fresh local seafood, many say the best place in the United States to find it is along the south Atlantic coast in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. In these waters, settlers who arrived in colonial times found what Native Americans had been enjoying for centuries – an incredible variety of both fish and shellfish. The warm ocean waters, shallow bays and tidal marshes teemed with oysters, shrimp, crab, flounder, shad, char, grouper, bass, cobia, red snapper, wreckfish and many other ingredients that went into a cuisine unlike any other in the nation.
Today, residents and visitors to the southeast coast still have an unparalleled opportunity to enjoy much of the best the sea has to offer. But the abundance of centuries past has diminished, and each year brings new challenges to the network of shrimpers, crabbers, distributors, restaurant owners and chefs who maintain the sometimes rickety supply line from ocean to table. So what about the future? There is surprising agreement that keeping local seafood available for generations to come is very possible. But it all depends – not on those who provide the local seafood, but on those who want to eat it and are willing to pay for it. “I’ll be here,” says Larry Toomer, whose family has been bringing in oysters, shrimp and crab from South Carolina waters for more than 100 years. “I’ve been going out on boats since I was eight years old,” says Toomer, now 58.
Toomer owns the Bluffton Oyster Company, a small gray building with a rusted metal roof along the banks of the May River. A shrimp boat and several small skiffs are tied up at the dock. At low tide, those small boats will be out on the nearby oyster beds, just reopened after Hurricane Matthew. Bluffton oysters aren’t dredged from the sea floor with a big scoop, they’re chiseled off by hand by men with rubber boots, gloves and a hammer. And that’s not the end of it. The oysters still have to be shucked. Toomer owns the last remaining oyster shucking facility in South Carolina.
“To keep all this alive takes hard work, love, dedication and determination,” Toomer says. And customers. “This business depends on the attraction people have for seafood. If you show someone they can get something special and serve the freshest possible product, they’ll fall in love. And that’s how you get to the money,” Toomer says.
Charlie Russo is equally determined to remain a part of the local seafood business as long as he can. Russo, 73, owns the Savanna seafood business his father, Charlie senior, started in 1946, now celebrating its 70th anniversary.
Russo’s Seafood is at 40th and Abercorn, near the railroad tracks, in a building nearly 50 years old with an unusual pointed roof. Outside are statues of a fisherman in a rowboat and a bearded sea captain with a “Fresh Fish” sign around his neck. Inside, the walls are lined with iced bins that hold whiting, perch, croaker, drum, mullet, clams and oysters. Russo has restaurant customers, but “the bread and butter is the retail business,” he says. “Thank God we’ve increased that every year.”
"This business depends on the attraction people have for seafood. If you show someone they can get something special and serve the freshest possible product, they’ll fall in love."
The seafood business is under pressure, Russo says. Government regulations to protect and sustain fish populations have restricted commercial catches of grouper, flounder and red snapper along the Atlantic coast. More restrictions have come after lobbying by recreational fishermen. Many small seafood shops have closed their doors.
Russo is not sure whether his son, Charles III, or other family members will want to keep the Savannah store in operation, but for him, “life is great at 73.” To serve his customers, Russo has had to cast his net farther from home, stretching the definition of “local.” His ice bins now hold more fish from Virginia, Maryland and the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s all fresh, never frozen even the wild salmon he has flown in from Norway. “You could buy it cheaper and pass it on cheaper,” Russo says, “but the quality would suffer,” and his customers would not be happy.