It’s “standing room only” with both shrimp trawlers and pleasure craft tying up at the Port Royal shrimp docks behind Fish Camp on 11th Street in Port Royal. All vessels have until Friday, April 15 to vacate the dock as renovations are scheduled to begin soon. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

Port Royal shrimp boats forced to relocate for construction of new dock

By Tony Kukulich

The Port Royal dock was still crowded with shrimp boats Saturday afternoon, April 9 with less than a week remaining before an April 15 deadline to clear the dock of all vessels.

The Town of Port Royal is engaged in an effort to rebuild the dock, the latest in a series of actions taken by the town to support the continuation of shrimping in the Lowcountry. But, demolition and construction can’t get under way until all of the boats have relocated.

“We understand that some of them won’t be moved, and we’ll have to pursue whatever legal processes available to get them moved,” said Town Manager Van Willis.

In what might be seen as a reflection of the difficulties the shrimping industry has endured in recent years, the nine boats tied up at the dock are in various states of seaworthiness.

“The reality is that of the nine boats that are there, only one shrimped this past season,” Willis said. “Two have been outright abandoned. The (South Carolina) Department of Natural Resources actually declared one of the boats abandoned, and we’ve been given title to a second boat. Now we’re working with the other boats to relocate while we do this replacement and renovation to the existing dock.”

The effort to replace the dock came as the result of an engineering study of its structural integrity. That study determined that a complete replacement of the decades-old structure was necessary. A new dock design was developed, one that would work with other plans for the area.

Safe Harbor Marinas – a national marina operations company which leases Beaufort’s Downtown Marina and owns Port Royal Landings and Skull Creek Marina on Hilton Head Island, as well as more than 100 other marinas – purchased the 317-acre Port Royal site from Grey Ghost Properties, who had purchased it in 2017. Safe Harbor is, according to Willis, moving forward with its efforts to obtain the necessary permits to construct a marina.

The town worked with Shannon Erickson, R-SC 124, and a legislative delegation to secure $900,000 from the state budget for the effort. Combined with another $600,000 already set aside for the project, the town has $1.5 million available for the dock and a new space to pack shrimp and offload swordfish boats. That space could be placed in a Safe Harbor building adjacent to the Fish Camp restaurant.

“We have $1.5 million, but we know we’re going to need a lot more than that to build the buildings,” Willis said. “That’s why we’re seeking out partnerships that will allow that to happen.”

The total cost of the initiative has not yet been determined. Just the removal of the two abandoned boats is expected to cost the town $120,000. But town officials remain committed to the shrimping industry.

“Ironically, we’re still one of the poorer municipalities in terms of total budget in all of Beaufort County, yet we’re the ones that have been charged with saving shrimping,” Willis said. “Prior to the state earmarking money this year, there’s been no financial assistance from any other entity whatsoever. We were underwriting shrimping. That’s the bottom line.”

The town got into the shrimping business in 2006 when William Gay, who was at the time managing the dock and shrimp-packing operations, was evicted from the port. His eviction left the operation there without a manager. To keep the dockside business from being shuttered, the town stepped in and took over. That arrangement continued for 15 years. After investing approximately $2 million of taxpayer money in the industry over those 15 years, the town council voted last year to suspend that operation.

“We’ve committed to keeping shrimping alive and culturally viable in the Lowcountry,” Willis said. “There are very few publicly owned seafood docks in South Carolina, even in the Southeast. We’re one of the only ones left.”

As of press time, officials from the Southern Shrimp Alliance had not responded to requests for comment on this story.

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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