The shrimp boats in Shem Creek aren't just commercial vessels that bring in tasty shellfish to Mount Pleasant consumers. They are, as Mayor Linda Page says, "our skyline."
But as Bo Petersen recently reported, the Shem Creek shrimp fleet is down to a half dozen, and their prospects for continued operation are far from assured.
"The captains and their boats are aging out," he wrote. "Shrimper after shrimper is giving up the trade, driven out by catch difficulties, higher costs and wholesale prices that haven't kept up. Few younger shrimpers take over."
Those problems are being felt across the state. Some 400 shrimp boats are licensed in South Carolina, a fourth of the number 30 years ago.
In the Charleston metropolitan area, Shem Creek is by far the most visible location for shrimp boats. Restaurants operate along the creek, and diners and passersby enjoy the view.
But for how long? Catches have diminished, and the boats need repairs that the owners can't afford.
"They can barely pay for fuel, much less maintenance to keep their boats in the water," Mr. Petersen wrote.
One shrimp boat sunk in December; last month, another needed emergency repairs costing several thousand dollars to stay afloat.
The town would like to help, Mayor Page says. But there are limits to what a town can do for a private business.
"It's very challenging," she says.
She notes, however, that the shrimpers have created a non-profit organization - Shem Creek Fisheries - that offer an opportunity for the public to do something on their behalf. Mayor Page believes that town residents would strongly support the fleet in a fund-raising festival.
And she has recommended to a local company that recently developed a paint designed specifically for aging wooden vessels that it consider the shrimp boats as a project for preservation.
She cautions, however, "It's not just the shrimpers that are suffering. It's the crabbers, the clammers and the oystermen, too." Indeed, the state's fishing industry as a whole isn't having an easy time of it.
Maybe there's something to do for all of them - Buy local.
And maybe there is something the town of Mount Pleasant can do specifically for the Shem Creek fleet.
For example, the town receives $2 million a year in accommodations taxes, which are paid by hotel customers. The funds can be used for tourist-related expenditures. Maybe the town could spare some to aid the fleet.
The idea that the shrimp fleet could be viewed as a tourist attraction is not without irony. It has been suggested by some in the fishing industry that if the Shem Creek fleet continues to shrink, at least one boat might be left there for the tourists to admire.
But while the shrimpers don't work at being picturesque, their boats do create the picture postcard view that helps bring visitors to Mount Pleasant.
Accommodations tax funds could help establish a loan fund for repairs, or be used in some other manner to asssist the shrimp fleet.
"They are a very important part of what we are," Mayor Page says. "They are iconic."
And they are worth the effort to sustain as a working fleet.
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