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Working on water: The beauty of the setting doesn’t keep the gloom at bay

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Knee deep in mud or out on the ocean, people have been making a living on the water in these parts for centuries.

The Waccamaw Indians found oysters and clams and the bounty of Murrells Inlet. Now there are just two old-time oystermen left. There used to be 40 red snapper fishing boats docked behind the inlet’s restaurant row. With a few exceptions, snapper is off limits now because scientists said they were endangered from over-fishing.

A harbor pilot in Georgetown hasn’t guided a big ship to the port in years because the channel hasn’t been dredged. He has turned to his part-time tow boat business for an occupation.

A researcher at Baruch Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences studies samples of water for evidence of rising sea level, knowing there’s no way to stop it. A dock builder says it takes longer to get the paperwork approved than it does to build a dock these days. Poachers, trespassers and thieves find Brookgreen Gardens and its protected acreage irresistible, and it’s a big job to keep them away.

All these people work on the water in Georgetown County. Their connection to the sea links them to generations who sailed or rowed or raked the mud for a living. The work can be dangerous as well as fulfilling. The six stories that follow are but a glimpse into the watery world that most never see.

The fisherman

Steve Johnson is cleaning triggerfish on a boat, Malachi III, tied to the dock behind Wahoo’s Fish House in Murrells Inlet. He skillfully filets the meat from the bone and skin and makes a neat stack.

He says commercial fishermen are dying out. “When I was young, I could take a rough ocean,” Johnson said, “but I can’t any more. It’s really a young man’s game, but nobody’s getting into it any more because there’s no future in it.”

Johnson said he did everything in his power to steer his son away from fishing after they attended the dedication of the Lost At Sea memorial years ago when the boy was about 5 years old. “He said, ‘Daddy how many of these people do you know?’ and I got to looking and it was scary. Then he said, ‘Daddy, you’re going to be on that wall one day, aren’t you?’ That hurt.”

Johnson said he doesn’t tell people he’s a commercial fisherman any more. “I tell them I’m a bilge pump specialist. Keep the boat floating first and bring the crew home alive.”

Johnson says scientists and politicians have ruined the fishing business. “Red snapper was one of my specialties, he said. “I know where they live and how to go get them, but scientists say they are not there. If me and my friend weren’t neck deep in it, I wouldn’t be in it.”

The oysterman

Franklin Lee Smalls looks over the creekbeds at Murrells Inlet and says it won’t be long before the oyster harvest starts. He started working in the creek with his father at age 9.

“That creek done raised many a family on this inlet, white and black, yes sir,” he said. “I always liked being in a boat with my daddy. I learned to flounder gig. He taught me most everything I learned.”

Smalls is better known by his nickname, Snake Man. “I got that name way back when I was drinking liquor,” he said. “I stayed on the ground more than I stayed on foot, so a friend of mine said, ‘I’m going to call you Snake. No, I’m going to call you Snake Man.’ Thank God I was fortunate. I started drinking when I was 14 and quit when I was 28 years old. I came to my senses, and I’m 64 now. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Smalls said the inlet is the same as the old days, but the product is not. “There’s more gas engines out here now,” he said. “More diesel in that water.”

He and his cousin William Nesbit are the last old-time oystermen left. Smalls remembers a cousin who could pick 90 bushels of oysters on a tide for Nance’s. A good day will yield four or five bushels per tide today, he said.

He said he came up in the old days when houses were lighted by lamp light and clothes were washed in a big black wash pot. There was no indoor plumbing, only outhouses. “In some ways,” he said, “I’m glad I came up in that era. It made me a better person.”

The harbor pilot

It’s been years since Edwin Jayroe piloted a big ship to the Port of Georgetown. The steel mill closed for a time, and dredging failed to keep up with the silt in the channel. There have been only promises of returning the depth to 28 feet, he said.

Jayroe runs Sea Tow, a business he describes as AAA for boats. If they have trouble on the water, he will come and get them. He described his last job of pulling a tractor out of the river as “nasty, muddy and hot.”

Jayroe said he started Sea Tow when the pilot business was good and he had a crew on standby. “It actually worked good for years, till the pilot business fell apart,” he said. “It’s a pretty good little business, but you can’t make a great living at it.”

Jayroe said he doesn’t know if the pilot business, or the port, will ever return. “I’m just tired of it now,” he said. “As far as the politicians and Port Authority promises go, we’re just not getting anywhere.”

The dock builder

Bobby Dingle knows how people around here prize their docks.

“A lot of people build their docks before they build their houses,” he said.

Dingle said he started “a long time ago” working with Dickie Crayton. “I found my purpose in life doing this,” he said. “I really enjoy it. There isn’t a better job in the world. Every job is different; every job is a challenge. Just being able to give people a new perspective on the creek is real fulfilling.”

The work is more complicated now, he said. It takes about four months to get all the permits required. A survey, computer generated drawings and the required public notices run the price up about $2,500.

The building itself is heavenly, Dingle said. “Being on the water, being in the midst of it, I enjoy everything about it,” he said. “We are right here in the middle of paradise, and to be able to go out and work in it and get paid to do it is a great thing.”

The game warden

Brookgreen is a whole lot more than a sculpture garden. There are thousands of acres of forests and fields that need managing as well as protecting from poachers and trespassers.

Mike Ammons, a commissioned Department of Natural Resources officer, is in charge of forestry, wildlife management and all the landscaping outside the gardens. He patrols the creeks and the Intracoastal Waterway from The Reserve to Richmond Hill Plantation, to keep watch over the former rice plantation property. He is the only employee who lives at Brookgreen.

Brookgreen has attempted to keep poachers out of its creeks and woods since director Gurdon Tarbox Jr. fenced off Brookgreen and Springfield creeks in the mid-1960s. Ammons watches for poachers who cut the locks or the chains on the gates to enter by boat and hunt deer or waterfowl or fish. He even finds canoeists who ignore the no trespassing signs posted on gates at the creeks’ entries. Most get a warning and are escorted safely off the property. “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse,” he said. “Most times, they don’t come back.”

Ammons says riding the creeks in his patrol boat is his favorite part of his job. “We are good stewards of the land,” he said.

The scientist

Karen Sundberg says she has the best of both worlds at the Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences.

As a research assistant for Jim Morris, director of the institute, she spends half her time in the pluff mud of the marsh and the other half analyzing samples of water she collects.

“I love being outside,” Sundberg said, “but I also get to be a computer geek and a numbers nerd.”

Sundberg’s research is helping determine the future of North Inlet and the marsh at Hobcaw Barony. She collects water samples from depths between 10 and 100 centimeters in the marsh and analyzes them for salinity, ammonium, phosphate and sulfide. The water in the mud affects the nutrients available to the plants. By mimicking sea level rise through flooding regimes, Sundberg studies how plants respond. Plants spending more time in the water tend to grow taller and trap more sediment. “More sediment means the marsh surface itself is growing up, and plants keep up that way,” she said. “We measure marsh productivity relevant to sea level changes.”

This year’s abundant rainfall will result in more sediment buildup, Sundberg said. “Plants grow better with all that rain flushing through. And with all the rain more water has been coming down the river, bringing more sediment. There are more plants to baffle the water and more sediment to be trapped. This will probably be a year where accretion in the marsh will outpace sea level rise.”

This is an unusual year for rainfall, but the marsh will eventually succumb to the rising ocean, Sundberg said. “It won’t keep up to the sea level rise,” she said, “and if that happens marshes die slowly and this area of North Inlet would become open water like Pamlico Sound over hundreds of years. That’s what we predict.”.

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