I guess everyone has a pet “cause,” and near the top of my list is the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton.
It’s funny just how many folks have either never heard of it, have no idea where it is and, most astounding, have absolutely no idea what they do there. With that in mind, here’s an abbreviated summary about this facility and the work that goes on there.
State sponsored through the Department of Natural Resources, the Waddell Mariculture Center is an expansive complex located near the end of Sawmill Creek Road in Bluffton. Initially built in the 1980s, the mariculture center has been under the management of its director Al Stokes for nearly all that time. But as time often does, it took a toll on the center, and because state funding was cut, it took years to finally get the funds to bring it back to its former glory. For the past year, extensive renovations have taken place and are now close to completion, but during this period, the dedicated staff there have not been sitting idle by any means.
When describing what they do, all I can say is they go above and beyond their stated mission of researching better ways to bring aquaculture to the forefront of creating sustainable seafood so that our fisheries don’t crash from overfishing or suffer from the external adverse affects such as fecal and pharmaceutical pollution, stormwater runoff and other issues arising from ever increasing development along our coast. I realize that’s a pretty sterile description, but it’s the best I can do in such a brief column.
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Al and his staff never seem to turn down requests to educate the public, even when it is during their much-deserved free time. Personally, I don’t see how they do it. If ever there was such a thing as a 24/7 job, the crew there fills that description.
I check out the progress on the renovations every week, and it’s starting to get exciting that the end is finally in sight. But while I make my rounds, I also love to check out the ponds to see what is being grown in each of them. One project that has been of particular interest to me is their cobia breeding. Because of overfishing, cobia fishing was closed this year, and one body of water in particular took a devastating hit to its cobia population, that being Port Royal Sound. Had it not been for Waddell’s DNA testing, we would have never learned that the cobia in Port Royal Sound were a specific group to that sound and that sound only. When that was determined, a few of us tried to catch male and female cobia from the Port Royal DNA group and transport them live to Waddell for a breeding attempt. It took a couple of years for romance to blossom, but finally it happened.
The tiny cobia fry were put into one of the ponds at Waddell, and watching these little guys was fascinating. Mature cobia have a forked tail, but when they are young, they are long and slender with huge fan-shaped tails. And talk about aggressive eaters! I watched them eating bugs, plankton and anything they thought might fit into their throats. Extremely fast-growing fish, last week they were released into Port Royal Sound, all 10,000 of them! Of course they won’t all survive, but according to geneticists, this is the number of fish needed to bring Port Royal’s cobia population back from the brink. Imagine that fishery if Waddell is able to repeat this year after year.
Besides cobia, this year alone 2,300 juvenile redfish went into the May River, 7,000 into the Colleton River and, in total, 1.6 million will be distributed from Winyah Bay and the Ace Basin on down to our area. In addition, 600,000 trout were released in Charleston.
Shrimp are also on the menu at Waddell, and to see that operation is staggering. Huge shrimp in ponds stacked 10 deep on one another that are harvested in the fall and auctioned off to help fund future research. Personally I would gladly pay more for our saltwater fishing licenses, which are ridiculously cheap compared to any other state, if I knew that money would go to places like our Waddell Mariculture Center. Once renovations are completed, you really ought to take a tour of this jewel of the Lowcountry.