“Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers.” — Herbert Hoover
The phrase “life-changing” is probably over used — as well as underappreciated. Typically, when we hear this phrase, we expect to hear stories about life and death and survival and courage, and people overcoming life-threatening challenges. However, it is no exaggeration to say that all of these elements are woven into the little-known story of the Hilton Head Fishing Co-Operative, which had an enormous impact on the economy of Hilton Head Island, as well as the quality of life for many native islanders during the 1960s and ’70s.
Before the co-operative, individual families relied on the waters surrounding Hilton Head as a means to sustain their way of life; it was the way families fed themselves. Looking forward to the day’s catch was no sport, because fishing provided the meals for the day. Breakfast might be shrimp and grits, lunch could be an oyster boil steamed with fresh corn from the fields, and dinner likely was rice along with the catch of the day.
However, in 1966, a group of enterprising native islanders came together to establish the Hilton Head Fishing Co-Operative, which was designed to help the community while taking advantage of the area’s thriving oyster factories and the increasing demand for fresh fish. Since most islanders were already fishing, they realized that they could capitalize on their labor and the environment if they combined their efforts and worked as a team. Working together unified and empowered them, and enabled them to better serve their clientele, as well as their own economic interests.
The Hilton Head Fishing Co-Operative gave its members financial independence, and strengthened the bonds between islanders who were already living in an established interdependent community. Sharing was already prized community value; it was a natural way of life.
Through the co-op, the community developed a fishing industry, and the process of fishing became more efficient and organized and created jobs for native islanders. The co-op allowed them to become self-employed, develop financial independence and self-sufficiency, and increase their earning potential by meeting the growing commercial demands for fish. As they earned more, the islanders shared more with their neighbors. Most importantly, the co-op developed into an important security system: The boat captains provided safety for each other while on the water.
The co-op even was featured in a November 1969 article in Ebony Magazine: “For most of the blacks on the island, the organizing of the co-op is a godsend. Not only have members purchased their own boats, but they have bought acres of barren marsh land and built a packing and grading shed, their office headquarters, a retail store and a cold storage room. Every afternoon at 3 o’clock, men, women and children flock to the docks to meet the incoming boats and to work in the grading room deheading shrimp. Already, the co-op has become the source of pride and income foe everyone there. Says Capt. Arthur Stewart, the father of seven children, ‘We are in better shape now then we have ever been. And we are working for ourselves.’”
The Hilton Head Fishing Co-Operative consisted of a fleet of shrimp trawlers piloted by a group of men who took on the challenges of the waters every day and delivered hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish yearly. In addition to the challenges on the water, the fisherman faced other obstacles from corporate initiatives that would infringe on the fishing industry.
In April 1970, the president of the co-op, David Jones, led a successful protest against a proposed BASF chemical plant that was to be built on the Colleton River in Bluffton. This project would have severely impacted the area’s waterways, the fishing industry and the livelihood of local people. Recognizing the potentially devastating threat to the environment that the plant would create, Jones piloted his Captain Dave shrimp trawler from Hilton Head to Washington, D.C., to hand-deliver a petition with more than 40,000 signatures to Secretary of the Interior Walter Hinkle. The delivery of the petition gave the co-op national exposure, and for the native islanders, it had biblical proportions. it was the David and Goliath story all over again.
This brave effort by Jones and the co-op is credited with keeping the area and its surrounding waters clean and contaminant free.
Too often, stories like this get lost in time. And yet many still remember this period with pride. The co-op fishermen moved through unchartered waters for themselves and their community, and they made it work. This is a clear example of how people are able to rise to the challenges before them with resolve and a steadfast determination to succeed.
Eventually, the co-op became a casualty of changing times. It was unable to survive rising fuel costs, limits placed on the areas available for fishing and trawling, and the growing demands of conservationists to protect endangered turtles. In addition, the influx of Japanese fish into U.S. markets led to heavy competition, undercutting the viability and profitability of the co-op.
The tide of the Hilton Head Fishing Co-Operative came into shore a long time ago. And as with many things from the past, time changes how we do what we do, but some things never change. Unchanged is the fortitude of the Gullah people and their determination to embrace the past and approach the future holding on to their traditions with pride strength, ingenuity, and determination.