Al Stokes is a rare Lowcountry fish who's finally getting away.
He retired Friday as executive director of the Waddell Mariculture Center, an aquaculture research center on a sweeping bend of the Colleton River in Bluffton.
Stokes has been there since the beginning, from the time the first water samples and soil samples were taken in late 1979. He was there as $4 million was invested in ponds, a few buildings and a hatchery that was dedicated in 1984 to a humming speech from the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
"We were on the cutting edge," said Stokes, his 40-year career with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources tying him closer to that special tract of land than even the Native American bones that recently turned up in a washout.
"We thought about this land," he said, "and all that time since that person was here, and we said we don't want to be the people to mess it up."
Many people thought that Victoria Bluff tract would be messed up forever when it was proposed to become home to a petrochemical plant, then a plant producing products for oil rigs, and finally a boat-building plant. Enough people thought that to keep it from happening.
Instead, the area has become a high-end, low-density housing tract, the Victoria Bluff Heritage Preserve with quiet trails open to the public, a popular public boat landing, and the 150-acre mariculture center where scientists pore over the ways of fish and their local environment.
In all those years of propagating shrimp, red drum, spotted sea trout, striped bass and the mighty Port Royal Sound cobia, Stokes also learned a few lessons that we the people must follow to keep from messing up Beaufort County.
Cut this out and put it on your refrigerator:
Save the Lowcountry
"It's ours," Stokes said.
Our waterways don't come flowing down out of the mountain. They roar in and out to the rhythm of the heaving ocean. Whatever harm is done to our water is done right here by us.
"We live in a unique area," Stokes said.
That means we need to be educated about it. Get out in it. Own it. Fight for it.
"You need to be active in preserving it," Stokes said.
Show up at meetings. When a development proposal is on the table, be there. Be educated. Be insistent. It can always be done better.
We need to figure out what "smart development" is, Stokes said. "To me, it's anything to protect these waters. That's why we're all here. We all need to be looking out for these waterways first. That has to be our highest priority."
Banning single-use plastic bags, or plastic straws, helps, he said. "Little things add up." They also get more people thinking about solutions.
Here's a new alarm. Microplastics are showing up in shellfish, primarily coming from our washing machines, he said.
"There's a challenge there. Maybe we need to soon change the way water treatment plants operate."
Pharmaceuticals also are showing up in our waters, he said.
It all means more attention must be paid to the water, so the fish don't get away.
Waddell was part of a "blue revolution," considered to be one of the largest and most sophisticated aquaculture research and development centers in the world.
In the late 1970s, as today, farm-raised seafood was seen as a way to feed a world population growing much faster than the wild-caught resources. Americans, Stokes said, import 90 percent of the fish we eat.
Waddell was created to be a link between the laboratory and the commercial fishing industry. Neighbors Georgia and North Carolina have nothing like it, Stokes said. The world has always come to see what it was up to.
In its heyday, it produced 1 million pounds of shrimp per year. It has evolved with market forces and commercial needs over the years. It remains a backbone for the sportfishing industry, which Stokes said today approaches $1 billion annually for South Carolina.
"We now release more than 2 million fish per year," he said, which, among other things, has helped save the popular cobia fishery.
Stokes said he isn't going very far.
He and his wife, Shannon, who retired on the same day after 33 years teaching in our public schools, live on a 7.5-acre tract right by Waddell that Stokes said he bought in the early 1980s.
Their daughter, Mattie, has a new baby.
About 250 people came to his retirement shindig on the banks of the Colleton River. They named the main building at Waddell for Stokes, and he was honored by the community with this year's Alice Glenn Doughtie Good Citizenship Award.
But Stokes said he struggles daily with the hole in his heart after losing his son — a 21-year-old Clemson senior — three years ago.
In retirement, Stokes will continue to maintain the graceful gate to Waddell Mariculture Center on Sawmill Creek Road.
It's a work of art, with metallic Lowcountry scenery and posts of tabby.
It's dedicated to their son, Collin, who was named for the Colleton River. He grew up there. And so did his dad.