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Will a proposed marina save a shrimper or mar the waterfront?

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James Green can't make it shrimping, but his idea for a 52-boat marina is raising eyebrows around his tiny town
  • James Green can't make it shrimping, but his idea for a 52-boat marina is raising eyebrows around his tiny town

Second-generation shrimper James W. Green owns and operates East Coast Seafood from a family-owned dock nestled in the live oaks of the Wadmalaw marsh. When his family started shrimping in the 1940s, it was a booming business in the Lowcountry. But in recent years, global market forces and new ways of farming shrimp have transformed the industry.

"The local fishing industry has been devastated. China and Vietnam flood the market with cheap imported shrimp. The rest of the world rejects them, but the U.S. accepts their shrimp," says Green. "I want to shrimp, my son wants to shrimp, but we just can't cover our expenses."

Green remembers a time when there were 1,400 shrimp boats along the South Carolina coast; now there are barely 100, and 15 between Folly Beach and Edisto where there were once 50.

"We were making $5 to 6 dollars a pound. Now it has dropped to $1 a pound, and at the same time fuel prices have skyrocketed, so it is costing us more to run the boats and transport the shrimp to buyers," Green laments.

Shrimp is now the most popular seafood in the U.S. Nearly 90 percent of the shrimp eaten here is imported — most farm-raised. According to John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, shrimpers on the Gulf Coast and in the Southeastern Atlantic can fill only about 10 percent of the domestic demand. This is partly because cold winters in the United States limit shrimpers to one crop per year — tropical climates allow for up to three crops every year.

Foreign shrimpers have other huge competitive advantages over the U.S. fishing industry. Domestically, fuel and operational costs are much higher, and regulations — of both labor and environmental impact — are much tighter.

In the 1980s, many Asian countries began widespread use of aquaculture to grow shrimp. These farm-raised imports often use antibiotics and antibacterials to clean their growing ponds and extend the shrimps' lives. These methods are banned by the U.S. government on any domestic seafood. The overuse of chemicals has done irreparable ecological damage to the coastlines of many of these countries, as well as posing a potential health risk for those consuming the imported shrimp.

"China had contaminated ponds that it cleans with antibacteria and antibiotics and now they are growing their shrimp in these ponds," says Green.

In 2004, a coalition of U.S. shrimpers petitioned the Department of Commerce to act against foreign producers dumping shrimp on domestic markets. The department responded by imposing import duties on six countries: India, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Ecuador. Despite this, shrimp are at their lowest price since the early '70s, while the import business is a $2 billion dollar a year industry — more than doubling in the last 15 years.

Nationally, there are federally funded advertising efforts spreading the message of domestic shrimp as the fresher, healthier alternative. But Green is convinced the government doesn't care. "There is so much infighting in the shrimping alliances, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife won'thelp us."

"Everybody is going out of business. We can't make enough to support ourselves. The cost to run the business has jumped 10 times in the last year," he says. "The Magwoods in Charleston, who have been in the shrimping business forever, only have one boat left. Boats are sunk at all the shrimp docks now."

In an attempt to fight the tide of sinking shrimper operations, Green thought he would diversify his business by using part of his land and half of the East Coast Seafood dock to create a marina. The marina would have room for approximately 52 boats, including three he would keep for shrimping. Green says a number of people have already expressed interest in using the marina, some of whom offered to front a year's worth of fees to get the project going.

But any infrastructure for the marina would fall inside the bounds of Rockville, a seaside village of approximately 120 people. And despite Green's hardship, many Rockville residents oppose the project because they feel it would increase traffic, potentially pollute the water, and disrupt the view from the village, which is on the national register of historic places.

Rockville's department of archives and history argues that the marina would disturb the view of the area. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has also expressed concern that the marina would damage the water quality of Bohicket Creek, where there is already a marina.

Yet, as Green points out, "A historic view is not going to help me make a living."

Babs Ambrose was mayor when Green presented his plans for the project to the town, and says the majority of residents question whether a 52-boat marina is necessary to supplement income. But Green says he spoke with other marina operators, who told him a project with fewer than 50 boats would never pay for itself.

"I sympathize with him," says Saul Gliserman, a naysayer to Green's project. "But that doesn't change my opinions. I'm opposed to any commercial development in the town of Rockville."

Development more intense than any marina could be Green's secret weapon, though. He says offers for his land — prime real estate for developing condos — have reached the millions and, although he wants to keep his land in the family, he will be forced to sell if he can't find an alternate income. Charleston County has recently resurfaced roads nearby, and condos are being developed in neighboring Cherry Point.

Gliserman says he hadn't heard anything about any such project, but that the residents wouldn't likely accept that either.

Ambrose, who runs a family farm and shrimps with her husband, says as an individual she doesn't think anyone has a right to rob a person of making a living on land that they own or inherited. "One of our major statements as a town is 'to preserve our way of existing life.'" To her, that means maintaining the fishing and farming industries that built the town. "The people who began the village came from a water-oriented community," she says. "I just can't believe that people are going to take his life away from him, from his wife."

Green has tabled his application for a permit from DHEC's Department of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management in lieu of the potential debate and says he is very interested in sitting down with other Rockville residents to discuss the project.

"It would be simpler to sell it and let someone else do it," he says. "But I want to do it, to keep this land rural. I don't want to look at restaurants."

Community discussions, as well as an environmental impact statement will be necessary before any kind of construction starts. Perhaps only dialogue will offer a view everyone can live with. (additional reporting by Lynsy Smithson Stanley)

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