Little surprise losing venture for Port Royal

In its bid to preserve some vestige of a shrimping industry along its waterfront, Port Royal is a mosquito flying into a hurricane.

The town has lost money since taking over operations of the 11th Street shrimp dock in 2009. The losses might be attributable to the way Port Royal charges shrimpers who dock there, but the reality is Mother Nature and markets -- forces more powerful than any town government -- make this a losing proposition.

That does not automatically mean Port Royal should end its management of the dock. It does mean the council and staff should make no mistake about what the town is preserving: an aesthetic, not a profit-making venture and not a brighter future for the shrimping industry.

Perhaps the sight of trawlers and (empty) nets set against spectacular sunsets is worth the subsidy. But if townsfolk think otherwise, managing the dock should revert to its owner, the S.C. Ports Authority.

The immediate cause of Port Royal's losses is that some shrimpers using the dock are not paying a $300 monthly fee, and the town lacks either the will or wherewithal to evict them or force payment.

Mayor Sam Murray has suggested giving shrimpers a discount if they pay a year's rent in advance. The dock's former manager said the town should charge a packing fee based on the shrimpers' harvest, rather than a docking fee.

Neither alternative addresses the immediate need -- money to pay for managing the dock in a town trying to bridge a $250,000 budget shortfall.

A packing fee isn't going to bring in money in the short term. A cold winter diminished the white roe shrimp usually harvested in May, and as a result, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has not opened the commercial season. That also means shrimpers aren't likely to be able to pay a year's worth of fees, even at a discount.

If this summer's brown shrimp population looks healthy, DNR could open the season later this month, and the local industry could make hay because the Japanese tsunami and flooding in southern Thailand have severely curtailed imports of farm-raised shrimp. But when those competitors return, so will the market forces that have long dogged providers of "wild American shrimp."

We might agree the industry decline is unfortunate and wild shrimp pulled from local waters taste better than farm-raised product (and they do). But history suggests an uphill climb in convincing undiscerning consumers they should pay more for wild shrimp.

Port Royal is paying for a prop, but it will not succeed in propping up an industry whose fate lies with forces more powerful than the town's budget.