McClellanville (copy) (copy)

Conservation groups and residents are trying to save the Carolina Seafood commercial fishing hub that is the heart of the traditional fishing village of McClellanville along Jeremy Creek. Provided

MCCLELLANVILLE — Larry Mcclellan can look from the porch of his century old farmhouse out across Jeremy Creek where the shrimp boats rock under their hanging nets.

Mcclellan captains one of the boats there and his son captains another. The creek, which leads to the rich Bulls Bay shellfish waters, is his livelihood and his life. The hub of it all, where the boats are moored, is the Carolina Seafood dock. 

That's how integral Carolina Seafood owner Rutledge Leland's business is to McClellanville, the modest fishing village north of Charleston.

The seafood dock is the cultural heart of the place. And it could be lost.

Mcclellan was among a roomful of town residents who turned out at a Charleston County Greenbelt meeting last week to support an East Cooper Land Trust request for funding to conserve the Carolina Seafood dock as an open space and cultural heritage worth protecting with sales tax dollars, but also as a business.

The support "is almost unanimous in this town," Mcclellan said.

Traditional commercial fishing docks like Leland's are disappearing across the state because of the niche nature of the business in an international market, as well as development pressures on the lucrative waterfront properties.

But in a region where tasty fresh shrimp, oysters and finfish are sought-after delicacies, commercial dock space is critical for offloading, fueling, taking on ice and provisions and conducting general maintenance.

Saving the docks has become a priority for local groups such as the East Cooper trust, which is working with Leland and other McClellanville residents to pay Leland $1.3 million to put the space under a conservation easement.

Shrimp Catch (copy)

Gulls and pelicans swarm above Jeremy Creek as a boat takes its shrimp catch to the Carolina Seafood dock in McClellenville. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Mixing business and nature isn't a conventional project for conservation groups. But they are turning more to public-private community efforts to conserve the traditions of a place as growth and expansion is seeing the region become more urban. The move has drawn criticism as costing the public too much money in relation to conserving less urban tracts.

Catherine Main, the East Cooper trust director, points to other private-public waterfront conservations seen in Okracoke, North Carolina, and Portland, Maine.

"It has been done before and has been done before successfully," she said. "We look at culture and history as important to protect the natural and scenic character of the community."

The trust's proposal is to put into conservation easement the dock's 2 acres while opening 1 acre as a community park with a sort of riverwalk working waterfront and restricting commercial use of the other acre to fishing. The Greenbelt committee asked them to resubmit the proposal with more emphasis on the conservation.

The trust plans to go back to the committee with more details and a park design that would include open spaces under live oaks and spots to view wildlife such as dolphins and pelicans.

Leland would add $337,000 to the effort. The conservation payment wouldn't be a windfall for him, he said. The dock needs to be rebuilt, the seafood house renovated with more advanced equipment.

Carolina Seafood handles 70 percent of the shrimp that comes into Charleston County, which is 30 percent of the shrimp that comes into South Carolina, according to state figures. It is one of the last of a handful of seafood houses left in the state.

The dock is the main mooring for the local commercial boats. A second commercial dock in town has been sold and its seafood house is operating on a lease. The expectation is the property eventually will be developed residentially.

Already the shellfish boats motor down Jeremy Creek past waterfront home docks that cost more than the boat captains' houses. They pass yacht-size sports fishing boats docked where commercial fishing boats used to tie off.

Rutledge Leland

The East Cooper Land Trust is requesting $1.3 million in Greenbelt funding to help save the Carolina Seafood dock in McClellanville, owned by Rutledge Leland. Provided by Catherine Main, East Cooper Land Trust

Leland is 75 years old. He has made a life at the dock since his father brought him down there as a toddler in a life jacket nearly as big as he was.

Running a seafood house, negotiating prices for varying catches in a market that constantly shifts with supply and demand "is not an easy job to put anybody in," he said.

"I've wanted for years to do something to commit this property to local fishermen. I never could come up with a plan," he said. "There are a lot of people in town who depend on this dock for a paycheck."

Leland has talked with the captains about forming a community co-op to run the place and hopes the conservation of the property will help them do it.

He, like everyone else in McClellanville, sees the massive growth in the Charleston area and new homes going up in town. 

"It's a reality. You have to deal with realities," Leland said. "I would like to see this place set aside for commercial fishing. I'd just hate to see that go away, and I'm going to do everything I can to help keep it."

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.