The fate of Port Royal's 11th Street shrimp dock and the future of shrimpers operating there are uncertain since the expiration last month of an agreement between the town and the S.C. State Ports Authority.
Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller said he expected the authority to renew the agreement as it has many times in the past. But the town is considering its options.
The town will continue providing insurance and letting shrimpers launch from the spot while it evaluates whether the dock's performance warrants renewing the agreement, town manager Van Willis said. The old agreement expired July 15.
About four or five shrimp boats are using the dock this month, Willis said.
"That seems pretty low, which is why we need to reconsider whether keeping the dock operating is worth it," he said. "If we don't have a lot of boats down there, it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to keep spending money."
The main costs include about $2,000 a year in insurance fees, Willis said, and it takes up town employees' time.
Manager Mark Smith said the dock is an important part of a struggling regional shrimp industry that faces high fuel costs and declining shrimp prices.
The number of boats using the dock fluctuates from month to month based on the high and low points of the shrimping season, said Smith, who owns Port Royal Shrimp Co.
At the height of this year's white shrimp season, about 26 boats paid to use the dock, he said.
But in general, Port Royal's shrimp industry still hasn't recovered from the hit it took when the port went up for sale in 2006, Smith said.
"Shrimpers don't really want to call it home when they don't know how long it's going to be available," he said.
The redevelopment plans for the shuttered Port of Port Royal property recommend keeping the shrimp dock.
A pending lawsuit between Sammy Gray, owner of Dockside Restaurant, the town and the Ports Authority over ownership of a section of the parking lot outside the restaurant also clouds the dock's future. Port Royal says it owns the land and, in the past, has agreed to work on a land swap deal with any future buyer of the port and with the Ports Authority. The town would swap the parking lot for the shrimp dock, keeping it publicly owned.
Gray claims the parcel is part of his lease with the Ports Authority.
Any potential deal would hinge on the outcome of the lawsuit.
If the court finds the town does not own the property, Port Royal would lose its main bargaining chip. But even if the court finds the property belongs to the town, officials need to re-evaluate the dock's viability and make sure the land swap is in the town's interest, Willis said.
"We're trying to leverage property that we own to keep the docks in a public area," he said. "We need to make sure that us reducing the cost for shrimpers is actually attracting the shrimpers."
Willis said he planned to discuss the matter with Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray today.
Last week, Murray said the shrimpers need a local place to dock.
"We'll try to keep it open for the shrimpers as long as we can," he said.