Fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, sauteed shrimp, coconut shrimp, shrimp Creole, shrimp salad, shrimp burger — as Forrest Gump’s friend Bubba would say, “there’s all kinds of shrimp,”

Vacationers often look forward to enjoying fresh, local shrimp when visiting the coast of North Carolina, But for those lucky enough to live at the coast, eating seafood is as easy as dropping a lime, or a net, in the water.

Kenny Sessions, a Topsail Island native, is one of the lucky locals who relishes the bounty of North Carolina coastal waters year-round.

“I love being on the water, fishing. It’s just fun. It’s what I like to do,” he says.

A Good Fishing Tale

Sessions has turned that love of fishing into a part-time occupation. A general contractor by day, he spends his nights catching shrimp by the pound in a homemade trap. His unique trap is the talk of Topsail and has inspired an N.C. Fishery Resource Grant (FRG) to further study the trap’s applications as abonafide method of commercial and recreational shrimping. Sessions explains how it all began…

“One night about nine years ago, I was sitting outside of my parents’ house when I noticed something moving along the seawall,” he says. “I threw a cast net out to see what the ‘things’ were — and pulled in a net full of shrimp!”

Night after night, Sessions watched the shrimp and decided that if they were going to “walk” right by his family’s house, he was going to find a way to catch them.

“I made something like a little minnow trap with small lead nets on it, set it off the seawall, and started catching shrimp,” he explains. And he caught lots of them.

“We’d put the trap out, have friends and neighbors over and cook the shrimp right as we caught them,” he says. “They were so fresh they were trying to jump out of the pot as we were throwing them in.”

Sessions’ fishing tale often is met with skepticism. It just sounds too good to be true. But, he’s used to that by now and eager to show his invention to anyone who is interested.

Shrimping Made Simple

“You have to see it to believe it,” Sessions says as he loads his boat with gear one August evening.

His 19-foot boat is loaded with small rectangular traps secured to the flat bow of the vessel. Two piles of green nets fill the remaining space in the front of the small craft. Sessions slowly trolls the shallow waterway, waiting for conditions to be “just right.”
As the sunset fades, Sessions drops anchor near a marshy shoreline and jumps out into the water.

“It feels like bath water out here tonight,” he says as he wades towards the bow of the boat.

From the port side of the boat, Sessions picks up the end of a net and begins pulling it towards the shoreline. The 60-foot net is outfitted with floats at the top and a chain along the bottom. In the water, the floats and chains stretch the net the complete depth of the water column. Sessions secures one end of the net to the shoreline and fastens the opposite end to a PVC pipe set in the waterway.

He sloshes back to the boat and picks up a trap.

The rectangular trap is made from 5/8-inch wire mesh, the same mesh size used by trawl boats. At one end, a funnel-shaped opening leads into the center of the trap. Sessions places the “funnel” of the trap next to the PVC pipe. Using metal rods, he secures a second trap directly on top of the first one. This design submerges the two funnel openings, but allows the top edge of the trap to protrude above the waterline, “so the shrimp can’t swim over,” explains Sessions.

From the starboard side of the boat, he pulls an identical net. Attaching one end to a PVC pole on the opposite side of the funnel, he extends the net out into the waterway. When he finishes setting up the trap, the nets look like extended wings.

“That’s it. If we were just fishing, we could go home now,” Sessions says. He has taken only 15 minutes to set up the first commercial-size study trap of the evening.

Looking back at the trap, he and his companions see glowing orange eyes of several shrimp swimming along the nets and filling in the end of the trap.

“I can’t believe it,” exclaims a researcher along for the ride.

“That’s what most people say when they see this thing work,” replies Sessions with an I-told-you-so wink.

No need to bait the traps, no hours spent trawling the waterway — just some simple nets, a “minnow” trap and a small boat. No wonder people think this is just another fishing tale.

To fully appreciate Sessions’ trap, one must first understand traditional shrimping in North Carolina.

Commercial shrimping is a profitable industry for the state, valued at more than $9 million in 2004. Commercial otter trawlers catch most of the shrimp harvested from North Carolina waters, according to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF).

Trawl boats operate by pulling nets through the water, scooping up shrimp and other nontarget species, called bycatch, as they pass. The bycatch is usually thrown back overboard — much of it dead or dying from the ordeal of being caught in the net.

Elaine Logothetis, a researcher studying bycatch ratios through another FRG project, estimates that for the inshore trawl fishery in Onslow County, an average of .75-pound of finfish are caught for every pound of shrimp.

Some trawl nets drag the bottom of the seafloor, to “tickle” shrimp up from their hiding places. While these nets work well to flush shrimp out of hiding, the gear also can disrupt structure and habitat on the ocean or sound bottom.

In recent years, trawling has come under fire for habitat destruction and the high amount of bycatch associated with the gear. North Carolina shrimpers are also facing pressure from farm-raised and imported shrimp products that have flooded the seafood market, often sold at lower prices than native wild shrimp.

With gas prices rising in recent years and shrimp prices falling, many shrimpers find it hard to cover their operating costs. Most target a different fishery or find work in other industries.

A Different Design

Shrimp naturally move through the inlets to spawn offshore. Usually, they move at night when the tide is rising, so they “walk against the tide,” explains Teresa Thorpe, a research biologist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Center for Marine Science. Thorpe is working with Sessions on his FRG project.

Sessions uses the natural movements of shrimp to his advantage — he simply places his traps to intercept the tasty crustaceans as they head offshore. Because Sessions’ traps sit stationary in the waterway, habitat damage is minimal, adds Thorpe.

Another benefit of Sessions’ trap is its low rate of bycatch. Preliminary bycatch ratios from his trap suggest that .10-pound of finfish is caught for every pound of shrimp.

“But, we can release them alive because they stay alive in these traps,” says Sessions. “In fact, preliminary data show that more than 95 percent of the bycatch survive being caught in the traps,” adds Thorpe.

Sessions believes his gear benefits the shrimp too.

The trap allows fresh water to circulate around the shrimp until Sessions collects and empties the traps. That circulation keeps the shrimp alive and fresh, even when water temperatures hit the balmy 85-degree mark in the summer.

As Sessions empties the trap into a bucket, the shrimp flail and flop around until he dumps them into an ice bath. The icy water is what actually kills the shrimp, a practice acknowledged to produce a particularly fresh and attractive food product.

Sessions, who holds a commercial fishing license, sells most of his shrimp on contract. Restaurant owners and others who know about his method are willing to pay top dollar for large, fresh shrimp caught in an environmentally friendly way, Sessions says. He also gives some shrimp to people he meets along the waterway — to help get the word out about what he’s doing.

Recreational Ruskus, Commercial Curiosity

FRG projects, funded by the North Carolina General Assembly and administered by North Carolina Sea Grant, often are developed by fishers in response to a need or a problem within a fishery. That’s exactly how Sessions’ project was born.

When Sessions developed his traps nearly a decade ago, he showed his friends and neighbors how to make their own. Soon, houses all along the waterway had their own homemade shrimp trap.

But, lots on Topsail Island are only about 100 feet wide, and sometimes three or four houses in a row would each set out a trap. “[That] was just too many, too close,” says Sessions. The arguments escalated to the point where people were pulling up or destroying their neighbor’s traps and DMF was called in to regulate the situation.

“We had heard of the traps, but didn’t realize how widespread their use had become,” says David Taylor of DMF, referring to the recreational gear.

Limited experience with this type of shrimping forced DMF to halt use of the traps — both commercial and recreational — until further studies could be done to assess the impact of the gear.

Researchers first became interested in testing Sessions’ traps after he introduced his design at a Shrimp Fishery Management Plan advisory committee meeting.

“When Kenny presented the details, I knew right away that this study would be a perfect candidate for the FRG program,” says Scott Baker, a fisheries specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant.

“That’s the beauty of the FRG program,” says Baker. “It allows fishermen to have an active part in the gear development and evaluation process.”

Sessions’ FRG project along the southern coast is one of three shrimp trap studies being conducted. DMF is testing traps along the central coast, and another researcher obtained a scientific and educational collecting permit from DMF to test the traps further north.

Although Sessions continues to set his traps the way he has done for nearly a decade, the FRG project adds more scientific components. While Sessions sets out the traps, Katharine Jarrell, a UNCW field biologist, prepares flow meters to set alongside them.

“These meters measure the velocity of the water. We’ve noticed that if the flow is strong, the shrimp tend to be running strong,” says Jarrell. “We’re also testing temperature and salinity, which, with a lot of data sets, might show us more trends.”

This research component is important, Thorpe explains.

“This project will not only study the catch efficiency of Kenny’s design, but also will add to our understanding of shrimp behavior. Ultimately, it will also help us to identify optimal conditions for intercepting the shrimp using traps,” says Thorpe.

Sessions’ project also is helping DMF answer questions about user conflicts. By setting recreational traps 50 to 100 feet apart, “we will be able to identify a distance at which traps begin to affect the catch rate of an adjacent trap,” explains Thorpe.

Using the results from the various studies, DMF hopes to have recreational regulations in place for the 2006 shrimp season.

Sessions believes having two or three neighboring houses share a communal trap could eliminate user conflicts. This would space out the traps along the waterway, allowing each trap to catch shrimp that could then be divided among the neighbors. On Topsail, “everyone knows their neighbors anyway,” says Sessions.

Topsail residents are not the only ones interested in the shrimp trap. After seeing Sessions’ project, Thorpe says she is “sold” on the idea. And many others are as well.

“There seems to be a lot of excitement about them,” says Thorpe.

Even commercial trawlers have approached her regarding Sessions’ commercial design. Commercial and recreational traps are identical except for their size. Commercial traps use 60-foot lead nets, while the recreational traps use 8-foot nets.

Sessions believes his traps are a viable alternative to trawling and says he has evidence, however anecdotal, to back it up.

“There’s a guy a few houses down that trawls. Often, I’d see him leaving to go out as I was setting my traps. I’d sit here in the hammock all night, having fun, drinking a beer, talking to friends, and in the morning I would have as many shrimp as he did out trawling all night. And he had to pay for gas, the crew, and that big boat and nets. I can do this myself, with no crew. I use a 19-foot boat, I burn maybe a gallon or so of gas a night,” Sessions explains.

Figuring Out the Future

Currently, DMF regulates Sessions’ commercial size trap similarly to pound nets. To use a commercial trap, fishers must apply for a permit, specifically citing where the trap will be located. Before being approved, the general public has the opportunity to comment on the trap’s location. DMF also considers if the proposed site will interfere with riparian rights or existing fishing practices, or hinder vessel navigation.

Once a site is permitted, other shrimp traps are not allowed within 1,000 yards of the site. Recreational traps currently are not permitted.

Sessions hopes that the trap will find a successful niche in the shrimp industry.

“I want it to be available as an alternative to trawling. I don’t want to shut down any fisheries or end traditional trawling,” he stresses. “But I think if it’s out there and more people can use it, people can decide what’s best for them.”

Baker agrees. “This gear has definite possibilities for both recreational and commercial shrimp fishers. I’m looking forward to seeing how this gear works in areas outside of Topsail.”

Thorpe believes that the trap will work wherever there are shrimp. “It’s just a matter of figuring out where they are in those areas and setting the traps in the right places,” she says.

Most importantly, Sessions and Thorpe want to get the word out. Although Sessions’ trap is well known around Topsail, many commercial shrimpers still don’t know much about it.

“It’s just so simple,” Thorpe asserts. “It’s easy to make; easy to do; so cheap; minimal bycatch. The only ‘downside’ may be you have to be up at night to do it.”

But Sessions argues that may not be a drawback after all. “If you’re a fisherman you love the hours.”

This article was published in the Winter 2006 issue of Coastwatch.

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