The Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton could be forced to shut its doors unless it gets funding from state and community sources, some officials say.
Supporters are fighting back with a petition drive designed to keep the center open.
The center, built in 1984, is operated by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and is part of the Marine Resources Division. It is financed with state money, grants and revenue from the sale of fishing and hunting licenses.
The division uses $2.1 million in state money to operate. That's down $937,000 after mid-year budget cuts in the face of falling state revenues and the economic downturn.
The state's portion is expected to fall again if the legislature adopts Gov. Mark Sanford's budget proposal for 2009-10.
Sanford has suggested cutting $611,930 from mariculture funding, cuts that would affect Waddell and the South Carolina Marine Resources Center in Charleston. His plan advises DNR to limit its role in mariculture to issuing permits, ensuring regulatory compliance and conducting "relevant" research as opposed to "non-core" research.
Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said DNR would decide what is "relevant" to the state.
Robert Boyles, deputy director of the marine division, said it would be difficult to keep both centers open if the cuts are approved.
While he recognizes the economy forces lawmakers to make tough budget decisions, Boyles said the work at Waddell is important to Bluffton and state.
One example is a grant-financed project to restock stripped bass in the Charleston area, which Boyles said was needed after an oil spill in the Ashley River several years ago.
"We grow the fish at facilities at Waddell and then transport them to the Ashley River, stock them and track them," he said. "What if we closed the Waddell center? We have lost that capability."
If Waddell closed, Boyles said he also would lose access to federal money for the stripped bass program. Currently, Charleston doesn't have the facilities to raise the fish.
To prevent the cuts from taking effect, Waddell supporters have begun an online petition to save the center.
Tallulah Trice, the center's community relations director, hopes to attract 2,500 signatures to present to the governor. As of Wednesday evening, 414 people had signed since Friday, including many local anglers, residents and Beaufort County employees.
Trice's newly created position is paid with a $37,000 grant from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. The nonprofit also acts as a repository for the Friends of Waddell fund, which has $2,300 from 17 donors.
Trice hopes to increase that fund and identify other sources of non-governmental money.
"It's very hard to sell something that's about to shut its doors," she said. "No one wants to contribute to something that's unsustainable. So to make it sustainable, we need a plan."
Part of that plan includes getting help from HDR/FishPro of Illinois, a national engineering consulting firm that has offered to evaluate how Waddell can improve its hatchery.
The plan also includes looking at the possibility of turning Waddell into a public-private partnership, a move that would require legislative approval.
Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, said he would fight for Waddell's funding. He plans to meet with Sanford today.
"Waddell Mariculture is part of the reason Beaufort County is a donor district," he said. "The amount of money that goes back into the economy is tremendous. That is truly a return on our investment. ... If we are going to protect anything in this state in hard times, it has to be something that takes revenue back."
To view or sign the petition, go to www.friendsofwaddell.org.
What does the Waddell Mariculture Center do?
• Researches marine life.
• Identifies potential marine species for commercial food production.
• Raises red drum, cobia and stripped bass to rebuild wild fish stocks along the coast for recreational fishing purposes. More than 2.5 million red drum are stocked each year, 80,000 cobia have been released in local waters and 210,000 stripped bass have been stocked in Charleston waters.
• Responds to the needs of stranded or injured marine mammals, turtles and birds for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
• Offers educational programs and summer internships.