With extensive estuaries and barrier islands, the coastal areas of South Carolina are an important nursery for fisheries throughout the mid–Atlantic region. Though economically insignificant today when compared to recreational fisheries and tourism, state commercial fisheries are characterized by small-scale individual operators harvesting primarily shrimp, offshore finfish, blue crabs, and oysters.
With the arrival of Europeans, natives created the first commercial fisheries, trading seafood for firearms and clothing. Coastal slaves, after completing their tasks, were frequently allowed to create enterprises including fishing. As early as 1770 the Commons House of Assembly acknowledged, “The business of Fishing is principally carried on by Negroes, Mulattoes, and Mestizoes.” Historically, the best-known South Carolina fishery was the “mosquito fleet,” immortalized in the famous opera Porgy and Bess. The fleet sailed out of Charleston harbor and returned with blackfish, snapper, whiting, and, of course, porgy.
The shrimp industry, centered in Charleston and Beaufort, is the largest South Carolina fishery. In 2002, 3.3 million pounds (heads off) worth $9,029,693 were harvested. Commercial shrimping began in 1925, when a fleet of Florida trawlers moved to Beaufort County. Shrimp were packed with ice in barrels and loaded onto railroad cars destined for New York. During the 1940s Charleston fishermen converted a coastal freight boat, using a block and tackle system to haul shrimp nets out of the water. Harvests expanded until the 1970s but have remained more or less constant since then. The two major shrimp crops are brown shrimp, caught in early summer, and white shrimp, harvested in late summer and throughout the fall. Beginning in the 1990s expanded imports depressed market prices and reduced profits in the industry. The industry peaked in 1995 when 6.9 million pounds (heads off) worth $21,692,665 were harvested. The number of commercial boats declined from a high of 1,016 during fiscal year 1991–1992 to 573 in fiscal year 2002–2003.
The second most important South Carolina fishery is offshore finfish. The offshore industry, fishing for swordfish, mahi-mahi, grouper, snapper, and other deepwater fish, is limited in South Carolina because of the distance between local ports and the Gulf Stream. The industry is concentrated in Murrells Inlet and Charleston. In 2002, 3.1 million pounds worth $5,374,498 dockside were landed in South Carolina. Stock reductions and conservation regulations have decreased landings of some species in recent years.
Like the other fisheries, the blue crab industry in South Carolina has seen better days. The industry grew in the 1930s and 1940s with the advent of canning and pasteurization technology. In Beaufort, Sterling Harris is credited with creating the first crab-picking machine and starting Blue Channel Corporation. Crabmeat and she-crab soup (made with crab roe) became well known as regional delicacies. Crab factories in Port Royal, Beaufort, and McClellanville employed hundreds of pickers to carefully extract the eight to fourteen percent of each crab that is marketable meat. Like the shrimp industry, by the 1990s imported crabmeat had undercut the domestic market. In 2002, 4.4 million pounds of live crabs worth $3,712,428 were harvested. The peak year for blue crabs landed was 1978–1979, at 9.4 million pounds with a value of $1,840,060, and the peak value year was 2001 with 5.4 million pounds worth $5,226,079. The last crab-picking plant closed in 2001. “Basket trade,” the sale of live hard-shell blue crabs, still exists. Local crabbers sell to wholesalers, who ship crabs up the coast to Baltimore and New York. Each spring dozens of small-time operators set up “peeler” tanks, harvesting blue crabs when they molt and creating, for a brief time, soft-shell crabs.
In 1893 Maggoni & Company established the first oyster factory in South Carolina on Daufuskie Island. By 1905 sixteen factories operated in the state. Oystering in the state peaked in volume in 1983 when 570,220 bushels worth $1,067,192 were harvested. The greatest value for oysters was in 1981 when 461,401 bushels worth $1,378,227 were landed. The 2002 harvest was 82,510 bushels worth $1,025,346. In Beaufort the last oyster-canning plant in the United States closed in the 1980s. Increased competition from abroad and alternative employment opportunities in the lowcountry contributed to the decline in the industry. In 2003 there was only one full-time fresh-oyster-shucking operation and no canning operation in the state. During the last forty years, numerous mariculture enterprises have come and gone in the state. Catfish, clams, crawfish, and shrimp farming have been attempted, but high labor and land costs (relative to those in Central America and Southeast Asia) and a shorter growing season have contributed to their failure.
Leigh, Jack. Oystering: A Way of Life. Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association, 1983.
Tibbetts, John H. “The Salty Dogs.” Coastal Heritage 15 (winter 2000– 2001): 3–13.