Quite often I get on my hands and knees and beg people to understand what the Waddell Mariculture Center means to each and every one of us who lives along the coast.
"Don't they do shrimp farming or something?" I hear questions like that all the time, and it breaks my heart that so many people know so little about those who work there, what they do and the facility itself.
One reason I have such a weak spot for the Waddell center goes back many years when I laid down in front of bulldozers that were about to flatten the site where Waddell now sits. Had those bulldozers been able to finish their task, a massive chemical plant called BASF would have occupied that site. Through hard work by thousands of people, we beat BASF and Waddell was built. So instead of destroying our precious Lowcountry, a facility was created to enhance and protect our waters for generations to come.
Recently, the folks at Waddell met a crowd of supporters at the Lemon Island boat landing, approximately halfway between Bluffton and Beaufort, where we got to watch the fruits of their labor. Nearly 100,000 juvenile redfish were released up and down the banks of the Chechessee River, which leads into Port Royal Sound.
Prior to their release, I was fortunate enough to watch the ponds at Waddell being drained so the redfish could be transported, and it was during this time that I drove Waddell's director Al Stokes and Mike Denson, the senior marine scientist from South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' facility in Charleston, absolutely nuts with question after question. I was amazed at some of the things I learned about redfish. Up to that day, I thought I knew everything about these prized game fish.
I guess the biggest surprise was the size of the redfish to be released. Expecting the baby reds to be about 6 inches in length, when I got a good look at them I could have easily held 50 or more in the palm of my hand. They were tiny. But what really shocked me was when Al told me that by this time next year those redfish would be legal size or 15 inches. I had no idea the growth rate was so fast. In addition to those 100,000 redfish, a week or so earlier Waddell released 5,000 juvenile striped bass near Charleston making a total of 20,000 that they have released in that area. Other species that are regularly hatched, studied and released are speckled sea trout and cobia.
So now you might question me about Waddell by saying, "So they raise fish and shrimp, huh?" My answer is yes they do these things, but even more important is the research they do when problems arise in the waters along the South Carolina coast, mostly from Charleston to the Georgia state line.
With the seemingly never-ending growth of this portion of the state comes issues like stormwater runoff, destruction of wetlands and pollution. The biologists at Waddell have saved our bacon more times than I can count. But with budget cut after budget cut for the past decade, the 32-year-old facility is hurting, and hurting bad.
Some progress toward increased funding has been made in the past year but nowhere near enough to bring this facility up to snuff. Roofs are falling in, pumps that supply water to the tanks and ponds that hold the species to be studied are broken, and the plastic liners that are vital to keeping water in those ponds are rotting. Some are even completely unusable.
It's time we step up to the plate and bring the Waddell Mariculture Center back to its original glory -- especially now when our area is growing in leaps and bounds and problems with our waters are sure to arise more and more with the influx of development.
New pond liners are good for 25 years, and they cost between $25,000 and $40,000 depending on the size of the pond. I know many of you have your pet charities, but this is our lifestyle -- the very reason we moved here -- that is at stake.
Let your conscience be your guide.
God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.