BEAUFORT — The city of Beaufort and the Town of Bluffton recently became the third and fourth coastal municipalities to call for the declaration of an economic disaster due to the dumping of imported shrimp into local markets.
The actions speak to a statewide concern. Fishermen warn that limited resources and an inundated market have created a “perfect storm” that without intervention could tear apart South Carolina’s shrimping industry.
On Dec. 12, Beaufort and Bluffton joined Mount Pleasant and McClellanville in urging Gov. Henry McMaster to declare an economic disaster due to the dumping of imported shrimp.
Van Willis, Port Royal town manager, said officials there are planning to take a similar action in January.
The declaration would allow for the U.S. Department of Commerce to determine if controls should be imposed on imported shrimp and could open financial assistance for South Carolina shrimpers.
Brandon Charochak, a spokesman for McMaster, said the governor is exploring the possibility of an emergency declaration.
“Gov. McMaster recognizes that South Carolina’s shrimping industry is a vital part of our economy, and he is currently exploring all avenues with state and federal partners to determine if such a declaration is possible,” Charochak said.
Shrimp dumping occurs when imported, farm-raised shrimp oversaturate the local market. It’s an issue Beaufort fisherman Craig Reaves has seen for decades, but one that he says has grown in recent years.
A shift in supply coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The supply of foreign shrimp entering the U.S. market exceeded demand at that that time, Reaves said. The price for shrimp fell as a result, hurting local shrimpers in the process.
The Southern Shrimp Alliance estimates that U.S. imports of frozen, warmwater shrimp nearly doubled from 2013 to 2021 to an unprecedented level of 1.8 billion pounds.
The shrimp dumping compounds other struggles within the industry, including a loss of waterfront property, increasingly expensive equipment and an aging workforce.
PORT ROYAL — The newly sworn-in mayor of Port Royal wasted no time getting down to business during the Dec. 13 Town Council meeting.
The smiles, handshakes and words of encouragement that marked Kevin Phillips’ brief inauguration ceremony were immediately followed by a motion to move the Town Council into executive session.
The session’s purpose, as indicated in the meeting agenda, was to receive legal advice regarding the controversial Safe Harbor development underway in the town that sits wedged between Battery Creek and the Beaufort River.
Less than 30 minutes later, Council emerged from the behind-closed-doors session and newly re-elected Councilman Jerry Ashmore offered a motion.
“I would like to make a motion to direct Mayor Phillips to submit a letter to Safe Harbor advising of our council’s concerns and feedback to items related to the Port of Port Royal development,” Ashmore said.
The motion passed unanimously.
The contents of that letter have not yet been made public. The Post and Courier has requested a copy of the letter under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act and is awaiting the town’s response.
Phillips defeated incumbent Joe DeVito in the Nov. 7, 2023, election for the town’s top elected spot. DeVito had served one term as mayor. The margin of Phillips’ victory — he garnered 60 percent of the 1,041 votes cast compared to DeVito’s 39 percent of the vote — surprised even Phillips.
“I was shocked by that. I thought it would be a lot closer than that,” Phillips recounted.
If there was one issue that distinguished Phillips from DeVito, it was Safe Harbor. And, as Safe Harbor’s development plans became public in the late summer and early fall, it was almost certainly a deciding factor in the election.
“That was something that was different between me and Joe,” Phillips said.
The Port of Port Royal has for years been a point of unrealized potential. Phillips said that residents have long been frustrated by plans that announced and never come to fruition. The South Carolina Ports Authority sold the port to a private developer in 2017, Grey Ghost Properties LLC.
They made some good progress, according to Phillips, including getting two restaurants opened: Shellring Ale Works and Fishcamp on 11th Street. But in 2021, they sold to Safe Harbor Marinas, a national chain with facilities across the U.S. with a heavy East Coast concentration.
In August, Safe Harbor presented their development plan, and nearly everyone was caught off guard. It was, according to Phillips, the first time the public and the council had heard anything about plans for Safe Harbor. Communication with the company was, he said, lacking.
“It was just completely different from anything that anyone had conceptualized. They just came out of left field,” Phillips said, adding that all hell broke loose after the plans came to light.
Safe Harbor’s plan, as described by Phillips, calls for a boatyard “larger than anyone ever thought” and the construction of approximately 230 build-to-rent housing units. The new homes could add as many as 400 cars to downtown.
“It’s gorgeous out there, and we’re just going to build 230 build-to-rent townhomes in the middle of that? Nobody saw that coming,” Phillips said. “If Port Royal knew that was the plan originally, I don’t think there’s anybody on Council that would’ve made that deal.”
Phillips characterized his response to the plan as more confrontational than DeVito’s. Phillips made it clear, he said, that he was prepared to take on Safe Harbor, while DeVito’s approach was perceived as more cooperative.
“When you’re dealing with something this special, this important, you’ve got to stand up for it and you’ve got to fight for it,” Phillips said. “That’s what I plan to do, and I think Council is behind it, too.”
The willingness to take on Safe Harbor appears to have resonated with voters. The issue is almost certain to be a defining issue during his term as mayor.
DeVito was presented a key to the town and a plaque honoring his term as mayor that included a gavel. He noted the irony in the gift because during his entire term, he never used a gavel.
“I do not believe you need a gavel to run a meeting,” DeVito said. “We ran the meetings together as a team and we did it because we all love Port Royal. We did it for one reason and one reason only, the betterment of Port Royal.”