Salt of the Earth: The Life of a Georgia Shrimper
Tybee Island came to J.B. in a childhood dream. As a Midwestern boy, he saw a vision of a lighthouse and the tide, long before laying conscious eyes on the ocean.
When J.B. Riffle arrived on the island as a young man pursuing his place in the world, it was déjà vu.
He moved to Tybee in the early 70’s, travelling by Harley. Working on a railroad in South Dakota didn’t suit him; it was too damn cold. And when the Wounded Knee Incident occurred a mere 60 miles away, he knew he had to find a new home.
He drifted from job to job, town to town, traversing much of the country. He thought himself “too sorry” to make anything stick.
Until he stepped foot on a shrimping boat and realized work was not the problem—it was people.
He was taken on as a crewmember by a man named W.G., a man much akin to his own spirit.
Together they built the Agnes Marie, one of the last wooden shrimp boats on Southeastern seas, and aboard it they worked together for 30 happy years. W.G. taught J.B. all that he knew—from driving a boat and casting nets to running a business and chasing women.
In their time together, they watched the industry fluctuate through extreme highs and lows. In a good year they’d make as much as $200,000, and the next they’d be lucky to break even. When J.B. began his shrimping career there were 1,400 certified shrimpers in the state of Georgia. Last year there were around 300.*
It’s not easy work and there are no guarantees. Since Riffle entered the industry in the 70’s, the cost of fuel has skyrocketed, alongside the cost of basic needs like nets and a boat.
“Everything has went up 10 times… yet we’re getting the same price for our shrimp that we was gettin’ 40 years ago,” he said. “But if you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons.”
W.G.’s greatest gift came to J.B. in his final moments.
J.B.’s son had just graduated college and was working on the boat while looking for another job. W.G. intended to retire soon and had already sold the boat to J.B., who planned to carry on his legacy.
While at sea, W.G. was overcome by a heart attack and died miles away from the dock. J.B. stayed calm and took over the wheel. He steered the crew to shore and called the police. But he didn’t want to see his mentor carried off of the boat in a body bag. At the thought of it, he was crippled by grief. He didn’t want to see the man who gave him a skill, a passion and a purpose become a nameless corpse, cargo to be disposed of, tucked into a zippered bag.
“’Bout that time, my son come up and put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘dad, I got him,’” said Riffle, “The last present that old man give me is I watched my boy become a man right in front of my eyes.”
Parenthood is the only pursuit J.B. has loved more than shrimping. As a single dad, he raised a daughter and a son. Much of their upbringing was spent on the boat. It was a vivid exercise for the children in hard work and determination, and it instilled a deep appreciation for the ocean’s power and splendor.
J.B. watched his marriage deteriorate over money when the mother of his children inherited a fortune she refused to share. But he considers this no loss—he’s surrounded by the riches of the life and children that he loves.
“The evilest thing in the world is money. It changes peoples’ hearts, ya know?” he said. “And if you really love somebody, you’d live under a bridge in a tent to be with that person.”
J.B. isn’t the only one to be unlucky in love—it’s considered to be a family curse. His brother has been married eight times and his sister has been married nine.
For what romance was lost on the island, J.B. found friendship, and in no shortage.
“Tybee used to be the kind of place that if you didn’t fit in anywhere else in the world, you fit in down here,” he said.
It was the kind of place where his arm would grow tired of waving as he drove the shrimp from the boat to market everyday.
In the name of loyalty, Riffle doesn’t like for the shrimp he catches off of the South Georgia coast to leave Tybee Island. He likes to provide for his own, and he looks forward to driving his shrimp to friends at Bowie Seafood or enjoying them at his favorite restaurant, Sundae Café.
These relationships define the life Riffle built for himself on the island. But in recent years, his business has been increasingly threatened by shrimp imported from across the globe. He knows that even on the island, restaurants desperate for tourist traffic will sell imported shrimp and pan them as local.
Last summer the tide shifted in his direction. Much of the Asian shrimp population was wiped out by disease, and he was one of few men around with the delicacy in great supply. This year, legislation is being passed in his favor. The FDA is refusing to let masses of imported shrimp contaminated with banned antibiotics cross U.S. shorelines. And if the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act passes, Riffle and other U.S. shrimpers may finally receive fair prices for their shrimp.
With little interest in the price he’s paid, J.B. will board the boat before sunrise every morning. He will cast his net as he did the day before, and he’ll turn back to shore before he’s depleted his spot.
“It’s a zen thing,” he said.
Once his pastor challenged him for missing church every Sunday. Riffle compelled the man to come out on the ship.
“He said, ‘J.B., I want to tell you something, he said I owe you an apology,’ and I said ‘what’s that for,’ he said ‘you’ll never ever be any closer to the Lord than you are right now.’”
Riffle has no problem appreciating his lifestyle day to day; he only wishes that those visiting the island would change their clocks to Tybee Time, that they’d watch the sunrise and the sunset.
In the houses that used to hold neighbors, he now finds visitors. His kids are grown. W.G. is gone. But he begins and ends every day just the same. He loads onto the Agnes Marie, and he sets out to see what the ocean presents to him.
“Everything has changed, and I just haven’t.”