South Carolina has a rich and colorful maritime history that dates back centuries. This history is perhaps most concentrated in the port city of Charleston, where two rivers–the Ashley and the Cooper–intersect with the Atlantic Ocean.
In the 1800s, fishermen would set sail daily in small wooden boats with handmade nets and return to sell their bounty on the streets of downtown Charleston. These fishing operations were known as the “mosquito fleet,” and until World War II, they were the only source of fresh seafood for Charlestonians. In the 1920s, flat-bottomed trawlers catching shrimp could be spotted along Shem Creek just off the Charleston Harbor. Today, in addition to shrimp, commercial fisheries harvest what they refer to as finfish—swordfish, mahi-mahi, grouper and snapper—as well as blue crabs and oysters.
The fishing industry has changed over the years, with far fewer commercial fishing boats around the harbor these days. The rise of imported seafood in the 1990s reduced profits for local fisheries, with many restaurants and other consumers opting for less expensive imports. But seafood remains an integral part of Lowcountry culture. Along with other regional cuisine, fresh seafood is a big driver of tourism for the area. Locals and visitors alike have become more eco-conscious and understand their consumption choices affect local environments and economies.
Perhaps because of all this, local leaders have embraced sustainable seafood practices, most notably through the South Carolina Aquarium’s Good Catch program. Good Catch’s primary goal is to ensure that seafood has a long and viable future in Charleston and beyond. The program supports local community fisheries and sustainable seafood consumption along the southeast coastline, extending from North Carolina all the way to Florida. By partnering with fisheries that adhere to strict standards, such as those that consider the long-term viability of each species they harvest, Good Catch ensures that seafood is harvested “at the correct age, in the correct quantity, and in the correct season.”
In addition to partnering with sustainable fisheries, Good Catch has also teamed up with local restaurants that want to offer sustainable seafood from vetted sources. According to the program’s website, “our partners have committed to serving a higher percentage of sustainable seafood sourced from southeast regional fisheries. Platinum partners are also committed to reducing the use of single-use plastic and following proper recycling procedures for their city.” To date, the program has over 50 partner organizations consisting of purveyors, restaurants, and caterers.
Good Catch also sponsored a recent discussion between local legislators, chefs, and other seafood industry professionals to address the most pressing issues facing coastal communities and the seafood industry as a whole, including the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual talk featured James Beard Award winner Mike Lata, chef and part-owner of Charleston’s FIG Restaurant and The Ordinary, and Joe Spector, CEO of The Local Palate, a digital and print publication focusing on southern food culture. At the end of the meeting, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, added his name to the bipartisan $20 billion relief letter signed by Republicans U.S. Reps. Don Young (R-AK) and Andy Harris (R-MD-1) intended to help lift struggling local fishing industries across the U.S.
Like the native fish in the Cooper River, the once small Good Catch program has quickly grown to become something larger. Here’s hoping Charleston’s commitment to sustainable seafood provides a model for other coastal communities and revitalizes the state’s fishing and maritime culture for decades to come.