The creases in Capt. Johnny Ray Bennett’s salt-weathered face turned upward with boyish glee Monday afternoon at the City Market docks, a sure sign that it had been a good day on the water for the Flying Cloud.
Bennett sat beneath the entrance to the City Market dock’s warehouse, playing with great grandchildren and munching on a McDonald’s hamburger while dock workers iced and processed his haul for the day.
“We got 400 pounds or better of white shrimp today, I’ll take it,” he said, the 84-foot Flying Cloud tied to the docks just a few steps away.
Shrimping has been good this season, not withstanding the 656-foot Golden Ray that sits overturned in the St. Simons Sound between Jekyll and St. Simons islands. Oil leaking from the shipwrecked freighter has been reported in several locations within local waterways, but offshore shrimping has not been affected, Bennett and others down at the docks agreed Monday.
Although the marsh plays a crucial role in the life cycle of our local shrimp, the folks who make their living harvesting these prized coastal Georgia delicacies remain optimistic about present prospects and those of the near future. The healthy offshore hauls brought by the City Market fleet have showed no signs of oil or any other effects from the shipwreck, said City Market owner Frank Owens. That has not stopped customers from asking about it numerous times a day, he added. City Market also sells local fish, crabs and other seafood that is harvested locally.
“I have not seen any oil in none of the crabs, shrimp, none of the fish,” Owens said. “The shrimp that we are catching is offshore, and none of my guys have seen any oil out there. It’s not a huge concern, other than I have to answer a thousand questions about the shrimp (at City Market) each day.”
The Golden Ray overturned on its port side Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. With nearly all of the 300,000 gallons of fuel removed from its tanks, the Unified Command tasked with the salvaging operation announced Saturday that the vessel cannot be safely righted and refloated. The Unified Command is now developing a plan to dismantle the ship where it lies and remove it in pieces.
The Unified Command has not released a timeline for such an undertaking. However, early on officials with the operation said it will take months. The Unified Command has not released an estimated cost for the salvaging operations and attendant environmental cleanup. But a Unified Command spokesman told The News on Friday that the ship’s owner would be held responsible for paying the cost.
The Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. Unified Command says it has some 70 boats and hundreds of personnel working on the cleanup, using everything from absorbent booms, surface barrier booms, siphoning boats and a sphagnum moss spray that absorbs oil on marsh grasses and other areas.
Bennett sees the Unified Command’s flotilla of workers and boats daily as he heads out to sea and returns with his catch. He gives them high marks for their efforts.
“They are really trying to stop it, from what I can see out there,” said Bennett, who has shrimped these local waters since childhood. “I see them out there trying to get the oil out of there every day. They’re always out there. They’re trying their damndest to clean it all up.”
Jonathan Bennett, the captain’s grandson and a crewman on the Flying Cloud, said he noticed significants amount oil in the sound shortly after the wreck. But he said it has gotten better since.
“It was a lot out there when it just happened,” he said. “But it’s not so much now.”
Several times a year, adult shrimp leave the inland waters and head out to sea to spawn. The baby shrimp then swim back for shore, seeking refuge in the inland waterways and marshes. There they to grow up before returning offshore to start the cycle anew.
Bennett has heard talk that the shipwreck could affect next spring’s roe shrimp season, but he is encouraged by the ongoing work he sees presently to clean the marsh.
“Some of ‘em said it’s going to hurt our roe season, but I don’t know,” Bennett said. “I don’t think it’s going to mess with it.”
Owens, whose family has operated City Market in Brunswick through several generations, remains confident that the local fisheries will survive the Golden Ray. He gave credit to the Unified Command, noting he thinks it is working admirably to fix a problem it did not create.
“They’re doing one hell of a job,” Owens said. “Those guys are working their tails off to keep this thing going and make it right. I’m not saying it is not a concern. But right now I don’t see it creating real serious problems for us.”