At one o’clock on a sunny afternoon at Shem Creek, Marhefka’s hold is open for offloading. Inside are about 10 large containers’ worth of fish: 60-pound greater amberjacks, which he slings onto the deck by the thin wrist of backbone just before their tails; one-pound vermilion snappers, unblinking irises bright orange; a lone yellowedge grouper, which he might give to Mike Lata — a special treat, if no one in his local seafood initiative needs it.
“If I wasn’t able to do this I wouldn’t be in the business,” he says, nodding first at his catch, then at Lata. Marhefka’s response to the closure of the snapper and grouper seasons, ending the viability of his business, was to start a new one. Abundant Seafood, which he runs with his wife, catches the fish that chefs and fishermen scoffed at ten years ago — “trash fish.”
“We used to call these fish ‘shack,'” he says. “We’d fillet them on the boat and sell them at the backdoors of restaurants and fried seafood shacks very cheap. That would be our beer and cigarette money when we got back from offshore.”
Lata’s realization that trash fish were disregarded for financial, not culinary, reasons played a vital role in Marhefka’s business. “I said, ‘Why don’t you just catch everything, bring it all to me, and we’ll start cooking it,'” Lata says. “I was thinking we’d find something really different.”
Together, Lata and Marhefka have turned several trash-fish species into prized specimens bought regularly by the area’s chefs. Take the rudderfish, a trash fish; Marhefka used to sell it on the dock for $1 a pound. “I told Mark, I will charge my customers the same price as I charge them for grouper,” Lata says. “Because the same guys are going out to catch them in same boat with the same integrity. I’ll create the market for this fish.” Together, Lata and Marhefka discovered its Pacific species was called Hamachi, prized for its raw flesh. Lata’s customers liked eating it. Other Charleston chefs saw that success and started buying up Marhefka’s rudderfish, too. “Next thing you know, it’s all around town,” Lata says. Today restaurants in Atlanta tout Carolina rudderfish on their menus. “He doesn’t charge as much for it as I told him to, but it’s enough to make it worth his time,” Lata says. Marhefka sells banded rudderfish today for $4.50 a pound.
“If I wasn’t able to do this I wouldn’t be in the business,” he says, nodding first at his catch, then at Lata.
While he offloads, Marhefka mentions a species called butterfish in passing. Lata’s on its scent like a fish-sniffing bloodhound. Is it restricted? What does it taste like?
“They say the flavor is amazing,” Marhefka says. But it lives deep. The two men stand silently for a moment, considering how to plumb the depths for their next swimming goldmine. “I dunno,” Marhefka says finally. “It’s something to go and think about.”
The hold is unloaded, and the fish are off in the truck. Marhefka’s headed home. He’s got one more thought on his mind.
“We’re just trying to have a balanced ocean,” he says. “Harvest a little bit of everything. Years ago, we were called snapper-grouper fishermen. Then we were called commercial fishermen. Now we’re just called fishermen. We’ll fish for anything. We’re fishers of the sea.”
Lindsey Tarvin, whose mother-in-law Cindy owns Tarvin Seafood, has a multicolored shrimp tattooed onto her forearm. Its antennae curl off into cursive that spells out “Breeze,” her daughter’s name. “When I was pregnant, I shrimped with my husband the entire season, almost the entirety of my pregnancy,” she says. Breeze was born 17 days after shrimp season closed, on February 3. In May, when the season opened back up, Lindsey and Breeze were back too. “She’s loved the water ever since the first day I brought her out here,” she says. “She’s so calm, so quiet. She just takes it all in.”
This time of year, the warm deck of a shrimp boat is the perfect spot for a nap. The Carolina sun dapples through nets that dangle like man-made Spanish moss. All the dangerous detritus of fishing — grabbing robes, finger-crushing metal traps — feels more like a makeshift pillow or nook for escaping the sun. At the dock, the rising tide rolls the boat, the Miss Paula, like a rocking chair. She’s not going anywhere. It’s the off-season again, from late January until early May, when the state sends a letter out to shrimpers telling them otherwise.