foggy morning

Fog blankets Shem Creek on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016. Michael Pronzato/Staff

By Michael Pronzato

For all the success the push to eat local has had in bringing local produce to local tables, Lowcountry fishermen and seafood businesses are still too often struggling to get by.

It’s partly a question of economics and globalization. The average distance seafood travels from catch to plate is well over 5,000 miles, according to Marine Policy Journal. That means cheap, sometimes unethically and unsustainably sourced shrimp from China, Myanmar or Indonesia competes with shrimp from Shem Creek.

Commercial fishermen abroad also often benefit from weaker — or non-existent — regulations on fishing seasons, catch limits and other critical protections, to the detriment of global fisheries.

Arbitrary preferences for certain types of seafood can also make it tough for local fishermen to sell some of the things they catch in South Carolina waters to South Carolina consumers.

Given those challenges it should come as no surprise that the dozens of shrimp boats that once docked in Shem Creek can now be counted on two hands. Nor should it shock that traditional fishing towns like McClellanville struggle to maintain that identity.

The problem is similar in many coastal communities up and down the Atlantic.

Those communities will need a concerted, conscious public effort to help protect not just a way of life but an economic driver, a cultural keystone and a vital connection to our natural environment and marine ecosystems.

That’s essentially the mission of a Sea Grant investigation into the successes and struggles of commercial fishing in Mount Pleasant, McClellanville, Murrells Inlet, Beaufort and Georgetown. The organization has spent the past few years interviewing stakeholders in those communities to help find out how to protect working waterfronts across South Carolina.

Those interested in hearing about the project’s findings can attend public forums today at 5 p.m. at McClellanville Town Hall, at 5 p.m. Monday at the Clemson Extension Office in Beaufort, or at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the Mount Pleasant Regional Library.

Strong public involvement will be crucial in preserving the fishing, shrimping and other seafood-related businesses that have been a part of Lowcountry culture for decades. Simply put, if people aren’t buying local seafood and supporting the local industry, fishermen will go out of business.

That means encouraging restaurants to highlight a diverse array of local seafood. It means local fishermen organizing to help get the word out about what’s for sale. It means educating the public about delicious local species they might not have tasted before. It means inspiring young people to consider a career in commercial fishing. It means developing and strengthening local government programs to protect and support working waterfronts.

In other words, there’s lots of work to do. But protecting such an iconic local tradition and a crucial part of the coastal economy is worth the effort.

After all, what would a coastal town like McClellanville be without its seafood industry? What would Shem Creek be without its shrimp boats?

As long as the public cares enough about supporting the Lowcountry’s working waterfronts to keep them in business, we won’t have to find out.