Food culture has become a driver for tourism in the Holy City and a consequential keystone of our coastal economy. Most notably, seafood has played a significant role in defining the culture and heritage of the Lowcountry’s development.
This new year marks the 350th anniversary for Charleston. So, as with any anniversary, we can use this occasion to reflect on from we’ve come from and what’s ahead for our seafood traditions and way of life.
In Charleston’s earlier days, the harbor was bustling with fishers, local shipyards built beautiful topsail schooners, and we had a marine ecosystem rich with a diverse selection of fish, crustaceans, shellfish and other marine life. Families mended nets by night, casting them from the shores by day. This was the bounty of the natural world in its pristine condition. It wasn’t so long ago that Shem Creek was home to more than 50 vessels, and wetlands stretched undisturbed for miles. Local fishing is in our DNA. It’s who we are as Charlestonians.
Charleston’s fishing and seafood scene has changed deeply since then. Lately you’re lucky to spot more than a handful of commercial fishing boats in Shem Creek, restaurants weigh the cost of local seafood against the realities of their ledgers, and shoppers find themselves confused and often disillusioned at grocery seafood counters.
We can ask ourselves what happened to bring these shifts upon us, and we’ll get a different answer from each person. The changes Charleston has experienced, however, are not unique to the Lowcountry. Coastal towns along all our shores have faced similar shifts.
But here in Charleston, tides are turning.
Fishermen are building relationships with chefs who care about the ocean and want to source seafood in concert with what our ecosystems are providing. Diners are more knowledgeable about the carbon footprint of their consumption practices and are choosing local more than they have in the past several decades. Conservation groups are prioritizing the protection of our waters and wetlands that serve as nursery habitats for important marine species.
Amidst this new wave of values-driven sustainability and conservation efforts there is another anniversary that deserves a spotlight. This year the South Carolina Aquarium will celebrate 20 years of connecting people to water, wildlife and wild places. Over those years the aquarium has worked toward sustainable fisheries and seafood through a program now known as Good Catch.
With more than 50 partner restaurants, caterers and seafood purveyors, Good Catch seeks to shift Charleston back to its roots where seafood culture is based on the sustainability of the resource for the ultimate betterment of our oceans and the coastal communities that rely on them for nourishment and their way of life. This is done by cultivating and uplifting businesses committed to locally sourced seafood, holding educational community dinners and reducing single-use plastics.
As we ring in this new year. we welcome you to join us in celebrating local seafood as it was in Charleston’s history — and, with your help, in its future too.
Amy MacKown is the Good Catch coordinator for the S.C. Aquarium.