Lowcountry Food: Getting to know our local shrimp

Shrimp are synonymous with Beaufort, South Carolina and are America’s most valuable, and probably most popular, seafood.

South Carolina has two important shrimp species, brown shrimp and white shrimp. A third species, the pink shrimp, is relatively scarce. Methods of harvest range from large commercial shrimp trawlers to cast nets and drop nets.

Some long-time residents of the Lowcountry may think that they prefer the flavor of one species over another, but taste tests would probably show that few people can really distinguish one species from another by taste alone. Some experts claim that white shrimp taste better than the other species, but the difference is subtle.

All three of the edible shrimp species look very similar but can be distinguished by careful examination of tail colors and subtle body features. Placed side by side, fresh white shrimp appear lighter in body color than brown or pink shrimps. Tail flippers on white shrimp are typically black near the base with bright yellow and green margins, while brown shrimp tails have red, dark green and occasionally light blue pigmentations. Pink shrimp almost always have an azure color on the tail and they usually have a dark red spot on the side of the abdomen. Brown and pink shrimps have grooves along the upper midline of the head and the upper midline of the lower region of the abdomen. The grooves on pink shrimp are slightly narrower than those of brown shrimp. White shrimp do not have grooves and typically have much longer antennae and a long rostrum (horn).

All shrimps have about the same life cycle. Spawning usually occurs in the ocean from near the beaches to several miles offshore. A single female produces between 500,000 and 1,000,000 eggs and may spawn several times. Natural mortality rates are extremely high for larval and juvenile shrimp. Probably less than one or two percent of the eggs spawned will survive to be adult shrimp.

Shrimp have three primary modes of locomotion. While feeding or resting on the bottom, shrimp will use their walking legs for moving short distances. While migrating long distances, shrimp will use their swimming legs. These appendages are located under the abdomen and beat in unison as the shrimp swims. Studies using tags suggest that shrimp may be able to swim two to five miles in a day. The third form of movement is the tail flex. This is a rapid contraction of the strong abdominal muscles that results in a powerful and rapid snap to the tail propelling the shrimp backwards. White shrimp commonly use this method to jump from the water. The tail snap or flick is a defensive mechanism allowing a shrimp to quickly evade predators.

Shrimp are great no matter how you eat them – steamed, grilled, baked, broiled, fried…. If you have any questions about the many ways to eat shrimp, please refer to the movie Forrest Gump (most of which was filmed right here in beautiful Beaufort) – just ask Bubba.

– Sea Eagle Market