The seafood industry is the lifeblood of the small South Carolina town of McClellanville, but the people who have managed the processing and distribution of the catch for decades are aging and the future of their docks is in doubt.
That’s what brought about 30 people together on April 24, 2018 at McClellanville Town Hall to discuss future options, including the potential for a fishing cooperative.
“It’s time to plan for the next thing,” said Thomas Beckett, executive director of Carolina Common Enterprise. “It’s time to find a way to continue to do what you already do very well.”
The two-hour session was the second in a series of meetings funded by a Hometown Economic Development Grant awarded by the Municipal Association of South Carolina to the town and its partners, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, East Cooper Land Trust, and Carolina Common Enterprise.
Beckett’s organization researched how fishing cooperatives work in other locales and met with local stakeholders to learn the intricacies unique to McClellanville. He intends to put together potential business plans.
The local industry has some hurdles in its future. The largest of two commercial docks, Carolina Seafood, has been managed by owner Rutledge Leland since 1972. Leland can’t go on forever, and nobody has stepped forward to buy his business.
Bill and Kathy Livingston, owners of the smaller dock at Livingston’s Bulls Bay Seafood, also are from Leland’s generation. While their son-in-law, Jeff Massey, has assumed some of the management responsibilities for the dock, the future of their business in that location is far from certain.
Boat captains at the meeting were searching for some hope for a stable distribution future in McClellanville. That’s the key to maintaining the fishing village’s cultural identity, they said.
The cooperatives Beckett discussed, Walking Fish in North Carolina and Heritage Shellfish in New Jersey, take varied approaches. Walking Fish is a community supported fishery in which a few members pre-pay for a season of seafood. Heritage Shellfish was formed by three clam harvesters to market their product under the Eventide Littlenecks brand.
An option for a cooperative in McClellanville could feature aspects of both of those business plans. Seafood with an official McClellanville brand could draw higher prices in local restaurants and retail stores. Or maybe a pre-pay version supported by select restaurants would work.
Cooperatives typically hire someone to handle the supply logistics, something Leland and the Livingstons now do. Leland is convinced the best way forward is to freeze more of the product straight off the boats. Shrimp, for instance, often are caught in large quantities over short periods of time. Freezing some of the large hauls allows distributors to stretch out sales over several months rather than forcing the quick turnover of perishable fresh inventory. Leland has minimal freezer space at Carolina Seafood. He suggested that a larger freezing facility could be a key to keeping McClellanville’s seafood industry healthy.
Some boat captains noted that the priority should be keeping the local docks open. They fear the waterfront property would be desirable for high-end residential development.
On that topic, Catherine Main, executive director of East Cooper Land Trust, suggested the possibility of purchasing a cultural conservation easement on the Carolina Seafood property. In such an arrangement, a land owner puts restrictions on the future use of property. In return for those restrictions, the property owner is paid or gets tax deductions. Under the right circumstances, Leland said, he would consider an easement.
Even if the dock space is assured, however, somebody will have to run the business. Julie Davis, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium’s living marine resources specialist, suggested treating the situation as if writing a real estate ad or posting a help-wanted ad for a job. Stress the positives: historically strong community support, a product people want to buy, suppliers willing to do the hard work to obtain the product, and a great view from the office window.
If the dock’s future can be worked out, would someone capable of running a seafood distribution business be intrigued enough by that description to take on the acknowledged challenges in McClellanville?