In McClellanville, longtime commercial fishing businessman Rutledge Leland is mulling retirement from Carolina Seafoods and talking to the town's cadre of shrimpers and other fishing professionals about forming a co-op along Jeremy Creek.
In Mount Pleasant, town officials stepped in to moderate an intensifying feud among residents, recreational boaters, commercial fishing interests and others over just what to do about Shem Creek. The town formed an ad hoc committee from among them.
At issue is whether the working waterfront can be saved. As those two towns suggest, the answer might just vary from spot to spot.
Sea Grant has launched a series of public forums about Shem Creek, McClellanville and three other of the coastal waterfronts. The forums will allow it to present its findings from interviews with stakeholders in 2014 and 2015, discuss the future of commercial fishing and ask for ideas on how best to manage each waterfront.
"Hopefully, to help them understand what's next," said Liz Fly, Sea Grant coastal climate extension specialist.
Each forum will run from 5-7 p.m. For Shem Creek, it will be Jan. 31, Mount Pleasant Library, 1133 Matthis Ferry Road. For McCllellanville, it's Jan. 25, Town Hall, 405 Pinckney St. Information on those and the three other forums, for Murrells Inlet, Georgetown and Beaufort, can be found at the Sea Grant website, www.scseagrant.org.
Both McClellanville and Mount Pleasant give Fly some optimism. The sentiment in the snug, live oak-draped village of generations-old fishing families on Bulls Bay north of Charleston is to try to keep the place the same, and local regulations have reflected that, she said.
In the booming Mount Pleasant bedroom community across the harbor from Charleston, competing uses have become the norm, and Shem Creek stakeholders generally concede they'd like to keep at least some of all of it.
The vista of moored shrimp boats, longliners and charter cruisers along Shem Creek is an emblem of the Lowcountry, as timeless as the tide itself, it seems. But it's not. In fact, it's a relatively recent development now getting supplanted by newer developments such as recreational craft, restaurants, bars and residences.
Residences, in fact, dominated one side of the Mount Pleasant waterfront when fishing began to establish itself in the 1950s, according to South Carolina Sea Grant research. Businesses such as brick and lumber works were on the other.
"I think it's going to be a matter of hard choices, of finding a balance," Fly said.
It sure won't be easy. The Sea Grant interviewers found that in Mount Pleasant, stakeholders generally viewed any use but their own as detracting from the waterfront. The town's ad hoc committee came back Jan. 10 with a 10-page document that amounts to little more than a laundry list of competing concerns and desires.
Members asked the town to find the money to produce a master plan for development along the creek.
"The thought here is that you can plan your way to a successful future, but it is less likely that you can litigate your way there," said committee member Randy Friedman, a resident on the creek. A good plan would provide avenues for stakeholders and mechanisms to ensure continuing the historic commercial use of the waterway, he said.
"I believe that the competitors will reach agreement because the solutions will be the best for all — sea life, waterfront workers, guests and residents. A good plan can do that," he said.
In contrast, McClellanville faces almost a changing of the guard amid a rise in residential interests, as the older-ways traditional fishing gives way to more specialized, diversified and year-round commerce than its seasonal catches. Meanwhile, the hub of the place — Leland's Carolina Seafoods — faces a changing of the guard.
"When you're 73 years old, you have to think about it," Leland said. "They all know, and I know, that something's got to happen sooner or later."
The biggest issue with forming a co-op is that somebody has to run it, he said. With the McClellanville dock's smaller production, its boat captains, like other those on the other South Carolina docks, have struggled to keep up with rising costs and stagnant prices because of competition from larger seafood dock operations.
Many of the captains sell their own catch, Leland said. "It limits what they can do. They can only catch what they can sell."
But he's found that, between the selling and reams of required reporting paperwork, running distribution from Carolina Seafoods has become time exhaustive. The captains want to keep fishing. Running a co-op would be a full-time job, he said.