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It’s getting harder to reel in a living on the SC coast

April 16, 2018

MCCLELLANVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Pete Kornack launched his oyster boat into “white knuckle” thick fog on a recent morning and came back with a good harvest, some 16 bushels.

The hoist squeaked almost musically pulling the bags of oysters from the boat to the dock.

But it wasn’t like the days when Kornack, 50, was young. Crews then would bring back 90 bushels, sometimes shoveling them into the boat.

Today, commercial shellfish harvesters like Kornack often have to supplement the living they love by finding other jobs.

The ocean has become a billion-dollar, job-creating bounty for the South Carolina coastal economy — just not so much anymore for those who make their living there. The money today is in beach real estate and tourism industries, including recreational fishing, as well as shipping and related services. In other words, businesses like sports fishing boat sales or charter fishing are doing great, while the catch is shrinking and a way of life disappearing.

“There’s a lot of tourism and people moving here; so, between repeat clients and vacationers, I stay busy,” said Charter Capt. Mike Illig of Avid Angling Fishing Charters in Charleston.

Still, the fishing has certainly gotten tougher in a lot of ways, he said.

“There is way more pressure than when I started, and from what veteran guides tell me there was less before that,” Illig said. “Boat landings are filling up regularly on weekends and even during the week sometimes.”

From 2007 to 2014, the economic value of businesses making use of ocean and coastal waters in the state grew from $37 billion to $44 billion, according to the most recent National Ocean Economic Program report using employment and wage data to track trends. In the same time period, jobs grew from 433,183 to 445,398. Total wages also grew from $14.6 billion to $17.2 billion.

Virtually every aspect of the economy is thriving — except the availability of fish and other dinner table staples.

In 2014, 150,000 fewer pounds of seafood were landed commercially than in 2007, according to the same report. More than 70 percent of that catch came, not from ocean fisheries, but from coastal oyster, crab or shrimp — and not all of it wild.

About half the seafood eaten in the world today is farm-raised, or mariculture, according to industry analysts. Shrinking wild harvests and growing populations have experts estimating that it will be 65 percent by 2030.

In South Carolina, the aqua-farming industry is still marginal compared to wild harvest, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium. But more farm-raised or mariculture clams are raised than wild clams are harvested.

Mariculture oysters are making enough of an impact that state regulators in 2017 approved harvest of them year-round instead of just in winter months. “Peeler” or soft-shelled crabs harvested after molting their shells, also are farm-raised here.

Fishing in the wild is still a way of life for some, but they have doubts.

“I don’t know how much longer it will be a way of life,” said oysterman Mike Anderson, 63, who has made a living on the water since high school.

“The money is still good. (But) I’ve seen the catch go downhill for the past several years,” he said. “Mariculture is what it’s going to be in next few years.”

On a recent afternoon, Mark Marhefka was busy packing part of the day’s catch to ship to the Upstate. His commercial fishing business is better than ever — just not the catch.

“It’s better because we’re doing more with less. I’m working more hours to make it come together,” Marhefka said.

The Shem Creek deep-sea fisherman has transitioned from a traditional operation to a restaurant and community-sustained business in which individual customers buy shares of whatever he brings in.

Federal restrictions on the commercial catch — enforced starting a few decades ago after surveys found nearly all sought-after finfish species in decline — forced the transition. The growing coastal population and demand for fresh, local seafood made it work for him.

But now he’s on the phone to customers constantly, even as he drops the lines offshore.

With the restrictions and other conservation measures, species are starting to recover, Marhefka said. But warming waters are shifting the ranges of the fish schools. He doesn’t expect to see the stock fully recover.

The industry has felt it. Commercial trawling, fishing licenses in South Carolina dropped from 3,250 in 2007 to 406 in 2017, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, recreational fishing is booming — despite the leaner catch. The shift to sports fishing began in the 1990s, when coastal population began to grow rapidly and technology advanced with it, making it easier to take a boat out of sight of land and still get back.

There were 212,808 saltwater licenses issued in 2017. The industry is worth about $600 million per year in the state, according to DNR. That’s 30 times what the National Ocean Economic report indicates the commercial catch is worth.

Oystering will continue into the spring. But peeler crabs shed their shells in the next month or so.

Kornack will hold down the night shift at Livingston’s Bulls Bay Seafood in McClellanville, harvesting the peelers, a sought-after fine dining delicacy, from 70 tanks where they are grown in a mariculture, or farming operation.

Mariculture, Bill Livingston tells you straight up, saved his business. Livingston started farming clams in 1999, then started farming “peelers.” Today, the business harvests oysters from managed beds too, to supplement the wild catch.

Peelers, with their brief early spring harvest, are big business. Depending on supply and demand, they can be worth more than $50 per dozen, according to Seafood News.

On Jeremy Creek heading out to Bulls Bay, the McClellanville oyster harvesters motor their aluminum boats past docks that cost more than their houses, past yacht-sized sports fishing boats docked where commercial fishing boats used to tie off.

The job doesn’t get easier as they get older. Anderson used to go out alone until he fell in twice. On a hot day, they’re wearing overalls, hip boot waders and rubber gloves. Anderson jokes about eating more sand gnats than most people could stand.

Kornack carries along a paddleboard to break up the routine with a few rides if the swells comes up. But he wears a neck gaiter to pull and cover his face except for his eyes. Someone teases about what sort of bug spray he used on it and he says, “chloroform.”

Asked what they’d do if they couldn’t get back out to the bay the next day and they each get quiet as they mull it over.

“Go home and cry,” Anderson said. “That’s your peace out there. You go out on that boat and put anything else out of your mind. Strickland got bumped by a dolphin the other day. You see mink along the bank, eagles. You take a bottle of hot sauce, watch the sun come up and open up a cold oyster.”

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Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

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