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More than one million cobia, spotted sea trout, red drum and striped bass are swimming along the coast of Beaufort and Charleston counties thanks to restocking last year by the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton.
Center leaders hope their work to study and replenish the state's saltwater fish populations, as well as research to reduce the nation's growing dependency on foreign seafood, will translate into greater state funding.
The center, on 1,200 acres on Victoria Bluff, has requested $1.2 million from the S.C. legislature. That includes $903,000 to fix structural problems, including a leaky roof, and electrical problems. The remaining $353,000 would go toward operations in the coming fiscal year and continue in future years.
The request has gained approval from budget writers in the S.C. House of Representatives. But a Senate subcommittee held back the center's request earlier this month for further review.
Advocates expect the center to get the money.
"We're feeling good that the money will come through and we can continue to focus on having a good, healthy fish population for recreational saltwater fishermen," center manager Al Stokes said.
The center has not been a legislative darling in recent years.
State budget cuts in the mid-2000s to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which owns the center, slashed its funding. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford also worked to eliminate its state funding, saying it should be supported by private industry.
It's a position Sanford, now running for the 1st Congressional District, still holds.
"Mark stands behind the totality of all his vetoes and their impact in going toward the elimination of nearly $1 billion in debt and deficits and in clearing the way for the largest recurring tax cut in state history," said Joel Sawyer, his campaign spokesman.
Since the cuts, the center has relied heavily on grants to pay three of its seven employees and on revenue generated from saltwater fishing licenses to pay the bills.
Its 30-year-old building has had no major improvements in years. Stokes credits area fishing clubs, boating clubs and individuals for donations that have paid for motors, pumps and repairs to maintain the tanks and pools full of fish.
"The roof is leaking. There are structural problems and it could be considered hazardous," Stokes said, adding that about 3,000 visitors tour the center annually.
Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, secured some one-time state money for the center in 2004 to make improvements. He is working behind the scenes to help this time, too.
"It's a wonderful state asset, and the return on investment has to be 50 to 1," Herbkersman said. "Sport fishing is a big part of tourism for S.C. These guys do what they're charged to do to maintain healthy waters and keep the fisheries up and provide for excellent sport fishing. If the state doesn't provide for the state's waters, who will?"
While the center focuses more on researching the state's fish populations, it is also studying emerging technologies and fish production systems to produce more U.S. seafood.
Nearly 90 percent of the seafood Americans consume is imported. Overfishing and increased competition from Southeast Asian and South American countries is driving the trend.
"We need to be more independent, more self-sustaining in food production," Stokes said.