February 2016

The Waddell Mariculture Center Is No Fish Tale

Author: Paul deVere

On November 8, the Waddell Mariculture Center on Sawmill Creek Road hosted a fund-raising party, the eighth annual “Taste of Waddell,” sponsored by “Friends of Waddell”—a group of mostly local Lowcountry folks and organizations who understand the extraordinary value of the center’s work, locally and statewide. Their pleas for help had finally been heard.

Featuring shrimp, raised at the center, May River oysters and music, it was far more of a celebration than in years past. The one million plus dollars earmarked for critical repairs to buildings at the center in last year’s budget negotiations in Columbia have started to flow to the Sawmill Creek facility, and work has already begun.

For the first seven years of the event, funds raised were used to, quite literally, keep the center’s doors open. When operations began in 1984, the center was heralded as one of the largest and most sophisticated mariculture research facilities in the U.S. Less than 25 years later, funding from the state all but dried up. As for maintenance and repair, Columbia has always responded: “request denied.”

In 2014, Senator Tom Davis, and State Representatives Wes Newton and Bill Herbkersman, Beaufort County’s legislative delegation, were finally able to convince fellow legislators to override Governor Nikki Haley’s veto of funding for the center. It had been a tough road.

“The budget for SCDNR (the center is under the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ umbrella) is 20 percent of what it used to be,” said Dave Harter, president of Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club and director of Hilton Head Reef Foundation, which includes “Friends of Waddell.”

Referring to South Carolina’s governors, past and present, and the legislature in Columbia, Harter said, “The Waddell Mariculture Center had no clout whatsoever. They (Columbia) viewed it as something fishermen ought to pay for or the aquaculture people ought to pay for but not the state. They didn’t understand how important the center was to the local economy and fishermen throughout the state. Fortunately, all that’s changed.”

While the budget victory was sweet and change has begun for the center’s fortunes, it is all just a beginning. “We’ve received quite a lot of support from our local legislative delegation. These guys have been great and have helped us in a number of ways. Our local supporters and the delegation have been fighting hard for us. Three years ago we got our first state dollars for operating the facility,” Stokes said. While that was good news, too, that allocation only covered nine months of operating costs. “We’ll try for 12 months next year,” Stokes said.

Waddell Mariculture Center, Sawmill Creek Road
Manager Al Stokes and author at the prototype bio-floc managed system for shrimp production

For about 10 years, the center has been operating on revenue sources like its share of fishing licenses fees to keep the doors open. “DNR realizes the importance of this facility to put together monies to keep us going. It’s enough to pay the electric bills, the exterminator and the dumpster guys, but that’s about it,” Stokes explained. But there are other needs. The 24 outdoor ponds (11.25 acres) are 34 years old. So is the plumbing system that pumps huge amounts of saltwater for the center’s use from the Colleton River. “Two years ago we had a pipe break and damaged two ponds. The Friends of Waddell fund covered the $17,000 in repairs. People are very kind and generous,” Stokes said.

In reference to the heavy use of saltwater and lack of money for maintenance, Harter, who also leads tours of the center, said, “Any boat owner knows you don’t just leave your boat in the water and expect it to keep working. You’ve got to take care of it.”

Manager Al Stokes displays Pacific white shrimp grown at the center
Stokes in one and a quarter acre pond

The site of the Taste of Waddell party, the front yard of the Turnure House, overlooking the Colleton River, is another example of locals helping. In 2012, the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Home Builders Association replaced siding and painted the 1929 home. Harter estimated about $70,000 was donated in labor and materials. The house is used for boarding visiting scientists and graduate students working at the center as well as a small conference center for meetings, seminars and training programs.

“We work with the universities, the Port Royal Sound Foundation. We help them, they help us. We get out in the community. We help with science fair projects, high school job shadowing. We give tours all the time. We answer all sorts of questions about boats and hunting, too,” Stokes said. He recalled a phone call he recently received at 11 p.m. “Some guys arguing about a hunting regulation. They said, ‘We hate to bother you but …’ I’m sure alcohol didn’t have anything to do with it,” Stokes said.

People who support the center are passionate about its current accomplishments and how it helped shape the past. And the past helps tell why, for some, the passions run so deeply.

Victoria Bluff, the acres of land along the Colleton River where Waddell sits, was a battleground for close to 25 years. Beginning in 1969, state and county leaders thought the banks of Victoria Bluff an ideal location to bring heavy industry to improve the economy of southern Beaufort County and, by extension, the state. First came a massive chemical company. Residents, developers and environmentalists, horrified by, among other things, the pollution such an enterprise would bring, fought the development and won the day.

Next, in 1972, a huge construction company was ready to build 24-story, off shore oil rigs that it would tow out to sea via a new channel dug into Port Royal Sound. That was closely followed by a company that planned to build gigantic shipping containers for liquid natural gas. Both were victims of the economy and local opposition. Even after the Waddell Mariculture Center was up and running, state and county leaders wanted to bring a 120-acre marine industrial park to be its neighbor at Victoria Bluff.

Blufftonians opposed to the boat plant prevailed.

During this decades-long battle ecological awareness of Colleton River and Port Royal Sound grew. It would eventually be described by various environmental groups as “the most pristine and biologically significant marine ecosystem on the East Coast.” The presence of the Waddell Mariculture Center, and the adjoining 1,100-acre Victoria Bluff Heritage Preserve, signaled the end of attempts to industrialize this environmentally sensitive strip of land. Bluffton and Hilton Head welcomed the new neighbor.

When the center opened in 1984, a great deal of emphasis was placed on research and development of shrimp farming techniques. “We put together a plan to build a facility like this [the center] to identify and develop techniques for farming seafood which would be passed on to the private sector and they could take it over. (Sen.) Waddell thought row crop farmers in the coastal plains might be able to do this,” said Stokes, who has been involved with the center from the beginning and became manager in 2000.

The center did develop a variety of shrimp farming techniques that are now used worldwide. A commercial prototype of its “bio-floc managed system” supplied the shrimp enjoyed by guests at the “Taste of Waddell.”

“We became so involved in shrimp, we became part of the U.S. Marine Shrimp Farming program which was funded by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration),” Stokes said. “The state doesn’t fund the actual projects or studies. We go out and look for studies we think are important to the state. We have top-of-the-line people in Charleston who do that. Research projects are funded by outside or federal dollars. No state money is used,” Stokes explained.

Sensitive to the needs of the South Carolina fishing industry, the center’s emphasis has moved from captive commercial fishing to developing tools to help rebuild stock such as cobia, red drum and sea trout, among other species. “Saltwater fishing is very important to the state. It has an economic value approaching a billion dollars. Just here in Beaufort County, it has a two- to three-hundred-million-dollar economic value. But it shouldn’t be viewed from just an economic standpoint, but from a recreational standpoint as well,” Stokes said.

According to the American Sport Fishing Association, fishermen in South Carolina spend millions of dollars a year in the pursuit of red drum, one of the state’s popular saltwater sports fish. The economic impact to the state is more than $150,000,000. Red drum is one on the center’s priorities. It has stocked well over 18 million of these fish in South Carolina waters.

“We can measure our contribution to the wild population through DNA. By doing that, we can estimate the size of the wild fish population so we know how many fish are out there and determine the age distribution within a population. Some fish can live to be quite old. Red drum can live to over 55. If all you’ve got is a bunch of 50-year-old fish and not enough young fish to go off shore to become adults, one day it all goes away. We’re developing a good age structure in there to carry the population indefinitely,” Stokes explained.

The direct impact of the Waddell Mariculture Center on South Carolina can be shown in impressive numbers (stocking 70,000 cobia in Beaufort County waters, 700,000 striped bass for Charleston) and in activities outside its normal tasks (staff at Waddell oversee the 1,100 acre Victoria Bluff Heritage Preserve by managing the roads, trails and occasionally saving a lost hunter).

“What we do, mariculture, is like the farming of plants and animals, just in salt water. The species we’re involved with live part or all of their lives in salt water. That makes this a unique place. We’re not a fish hatchery where they produce one or two species. We are involved in multiple species for stocking and developing research for food production. In so many cases, there isn’t another place like this,” Stokes said.

The Friends of Waddell already knew that. Now it seems the majority of the state’s legislators do too. For one of the key elements in the state’s multimillion dollar fishing industry, next year there ought to be enough money in the budget to fix the leaky pipes. 

What’s in a Name?
Officially titled the James M. Waddell, Jr. Mariculture Research and Development Center, the world renowned facility is often simply called “Waddell.” The center’s namesake was a state senator from Beaufort. He first served in the South Carolina House in 1954. He was elected to the State Senate in 1960 and served until 1992. He was a member of the finance committee from 1967 to 1992 and chair from 1988. During that same period, he was a member of the Fish, Game and Forestry committee and was chair 1976-1986. He was founder and chairman of the South Carolina Coastal Council (now the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management), a major force in creating the Sea Grant Consortium on South Carolina, and establishing the mariculture center. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Waddell to the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere.

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