Little more than a generation ago, miles of Lowcountry beaches were virtually untrampled and miles of its coast were forests and marshes. It looked just about like it did a century before.
When Hurricane Hugo crippled the Ben Sawyer Bridge in 1989, the swing bridge was the only road to Sullivan's Island or Isle of Palms. Before the Wild Dunes Resort was built in 1972, the entire east end of Isle of Palms was woods and rolling dunes.
Even after construction began at the upscale Sea Pines resort on Hilton Head in the 1950s, the island was so remote that much of it was prize hunting ground.
When the S.C. Wildlife Department began air patrols in the 1960s, its officers would fly over miles and miles of maritime forest, isolated islands and beaches south of the Grand Strand.
It sounds surreal to anyone nowadays who battles summer weekend traffic to get to the beach.
People like Ed Ravenel of Yonge's Island, who grew up in the 1950s, grew up in different place. A few years ago Ravenel wistfully recalled hopping on a Marsh Tacky, the Lowcountry's own feral swamp horse, and mucking his way from the family's Johns Island farm to remote, uninhabited Kiawah Island to tend the cattle.
Left on the island, they were all but wild and ran from herders. But in the summer they waded into the surf to escape the flies and biting bugs, where they could be roped. Today, the median sales price for a home on Kiawah Island hovers around $1 million, according to Trulia Real Estate Search.
Not so far to the north, Joe Brooks began a life on the sea pulling an oar aboard a fish-netting boat with his father on Sunset Beach, just over the North Carolina border, and hauling in more fish than they could carry.
The Georgetown resident, now in his early 70s, opened this spring's shrimp season by putting his boat up for sale. He advertised it not as a shrimp boat, but as a fix-'er-up house boat.
Why? Because he wanted it to sell, and few shrimpers are left to buy it.
"Just put you up a nice house on it," he said with a tight seller's smile, patting the cabin of the worn old boat.
Meanwhile, for generations upon generations in the Lowcountry, the coastal ocean remained the last wilderness. People made lives and their living taking that adventure. In the 1990s, the wilderness began to disappear, big time, as more container ships, professional and private fishing boats and pleasure craft moved in.
We are reaching the limits of what the South Atlantic Bight, the coastal ocean between Cape Hatteras and Florida, will yield. Businesses, government and conservation interests have begun to set boundary stakes.
Spot the ripples
The laughing gulls are above as Brooks walks to his shrimper, the Miss Adrian Dawn. Five shrimp boats are moored at the half-empty dock and the dock down the waterway in Georgetown. As recently as a decade ago, boats tied up three abreast all along it.
Alongside his boat, The Grouper Snooper and Can Do II are tied up -- offshore boats that would be fishing the snapper-grouper grounds if they hadn't been shut down by catch restrictions.
Cap'n Rod's Lowcountry Plantation Tours is running a tourist cruise boat down the harbor, pointing out the boats like the historic landmark they are fast becoming.
Brooks wears reflective aviator sunglasses and sports a sea captain scruff of a beard. The boat looks worn down, rusted and ratty.
An old pair of sneakers with the laces still tied lie on the deck alongside a folded-up chair. The door to the cabin is nailed shut because he has been robbed of a generator and rooftop electronics.
At 9 years old, Brooks started pulling a midship oar, dragging as much as 1,200 yards of prized Holstein fishing nets beyond the surf off Sunset Beach. Lookouts on the beach would spot the ripples in the water of runs of fish and yell; Brooks would row.
Some days the boat pulled in so many mullet and spots that they couldn't get them all the way up on shore.
The only way to move gear and fish back and forth to the island was by boat, and on those big netting days when they would haul in more fish than they could carry or sell, they would bury the leftovers in holes on the beach.
His family owned Sunset Beach. They sold it for $52,000 after Hurricane Hazel, when the storm left them homeless with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Today, Sunset Beach is a well-heeled vacation destination just across the state line from Myrtle Beach, a destination that touts its natural environs. The median home sale price is more than $240,000, according to Trulia.
Worked his way back
Brooks has always fished and always tried to make a living from it. He worked for awhile dredging up and down the coasts of both states. He heard about the Kennedy assassination while 200 feet down in a dredge pump hole, trying to cut free a cypress log.
He brokered for himself and other shrimpers, moving local shrimp from Wanchese to Savannah, selling to Sea-Pac breaders.
He would back a tractor-trailer to the loading rail at Georgetown and fill it up. He sold flounder. He ran sturgeon roe to New York, picked up clams on Long Island, 500 gallons of oysters per day in season to shucking pants in Brunswick County.
But he always worked his way back to the water. As recently as 2000, shrimp and fishing boats were tying up in Georgetown from up north and down in Florida, and he was back in.
"They were kind of like the trucking business. Fuel was cheap enough you could go out and hunt the shrimp," he said. He bought Miss Adrian Dawn from another shrimper, a 1955 classic, smaller than the average boat then but comfortable enough to work single-handedly.
He used to be able to "scrap," drag nets for awhile, and if he didn't pull in a catch, just lift the lines and try somewhere else. Now it costs too much fuel to go. The price for wild shrimp has plummeted with competition pressure from foreign farmed shrimp. Last year, shrimpers at his dock were getting $1.50-$2 per pound, he said.
This spring, he put the boat up for sale.
The Southeast coast has seen a staggering 58 percent increase in population since 1980, and the fish-rich Gulf Stream has seen an influx of commercial and recreational anglers using an array of gear, global positioning devices, side-scanning sonar and other digital technology that is growing more sophisticated every year.
Meanwhile, imported seafood eats away at the profits.
More than 100,000 offshore boats are licensed in South Carolina, and commercial boats routinely move from state to state offshore. Fish and shellfish are being raked from the sea at a rate that has regulators closing down fisheries.
Swaths of the ocean are being roped off by interests as varied as oil drilling and aquaculture, and travelled by everything from container ships to U.S. Navy destroyers and submarines on training maneuvers.
There's fewer game to hunt, and more miles of ocean where hunting is regulated for seasons and species like public land onshore. Commercial and recreational fishing seem to be moving inexorably to cottage industries, where you find your niche and try to make it pay.
The sea just isn't wild anymore.
"We've begun managing ocean uses the way we have been managing the coastline," said Rick DeVoe, South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium director. And the resource needs more intensive management simply because boundary lines do not confine it, he said.
"It needs massive special planning."
'People are getting out'
The funny thing is that right after Brooks put the Miss Adrian Dawn up for sale, shrimp started turning up -- big time. And the Gulf oil spill drove up the dock price for local crustaceans.
Brooks hired a captain and began running the boat after them. But the catch fell off, and the price soon fell to $1 per pound. Now he's not sure what to do.
He's in the hole paying to run the boat and doesn't want to quit without turning a profit. But he might just go ahead and sell it anyhow, if he can.
"If you can run the boat yourself, you could make it, if you're a good shrimper," he said as he picked his way around the deck under a hot sun that spring day.
But "it's been getting a little worse everywhere each year for the past 12 years. A lot of people are getting out. It's up and down the coast. It's just changing, changing, changing, for the worst."
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