George Norton with the large female cobia he caught. After this photo, she was released.

Quite often I get on my hand and knees begging you to understand everything the Waddell Mariculture Center means to each and every one of us that lives along the coast.

Some say, “Don’t they do shrimp farming or something like that?” while others say they have never even heard of this facility on Sawmill Creek Road right here in Bluffton.

I hear questions like that all the time and it breaks my heart that so many of you know so little about the people who work there, what they do and the facility itself.

One reason I have such a weak spot for the Waddell Center goes back to many years ago, when I – and others –lay down in front of bulldozers that were about to flatten the site where Waddell now sits. Had those bulldozers been able to finish their task, a massive chemical plant called BASF would have occupied the site.

Through hard work by thousands of people, we beat BASF, and Waddell was built so that instead of destroying our precious Lowcountry, a facility was built to enhance and protect our waters for generations to come.

If you haven’t kept up with recent renovations at the Waddell Mariculture Center, the wet lab, where all the fish are housed, is spectacular. Seriously under-funded by the state, it took years to finally get the money necessary to revamp that part of the facility.

But even with that, the small team of dedicated professionals there are still finding themselves operating on a shoestring budget. If it weren’t for the local community’s support and the nonprofit Waddell Fund, I am not sure what might happen to this vital part of our community. Research, education and breeding programs for restocking cobia, redfish, trout, flounder and tripletail make this place a jewel for our water-oriented lifestyle.

Especially with cobia, there is a hitch. The females needed in order to bring back overfished Port Royal Sound cobia stocks have to be from the genetically pure group that we call “Port Royal cobia.”

Using DNA testing, the biologists there can determine if that cobia comes from this very specific group. In the past three years, nearly 40,000 generically pure Port Royal cobia raised at Waddell have been released back into Port Royal Sound. Through new funding, maturation tanks that mimic perfect breeding conditions have allowed Waddell’s cobia to spawn up to three or four times a year instead of just once. That is huge!

I guess the biggest surprise for me was the size of the cobia released. They are small! I was expecting typical forked tails of older fish – but these young cobia have fanned tails, much like a freshwater aquarium beta fish.

Though larger when released, this year should be an indicator as to how successful their efforts have been. With state waters closed to cobia fishing in May, if all goes right, sexually mature Port Royal Sound cobia will be undisturbed during this peak breeding time.

So now you might question me about Waddell by saying, “So they raise fish and shrimp, huh?” My answer is yes, they do these things, but even more important is the research they do when problems arise in the waters along the South Carolina coast, primarily from Charleston to the Georgia state line. With the seemingly never-ending growth in this portion of the state come issues like storm water runoff, destruction of wetlands and pollution.

Like the Ghostbusters line, “Who ya gonna call?”, the biologists at Waddell have saved our bacon more times than I can count. But with budget cut after budget cut for the past decade, the 37-year-old state-run facility is still hurting bad.

Some progress toward increased funding has been made in the past year, but nowhere near enough to bring this facility up to snuff. Liners that are vital to keep water in the many ponds onsite have rotted and many are completely unusable.

It’s time that we step up to the plate and bring the Waddell Mariculture Center back to its original glory, especially now when our area is growing by leaps and bounds, and problems with our waters are sure to arise more and more with the influx of development.

I KNOW many of you out there have the money where a tax-deductible donation of $20,000 or more to Waddell would be hardly missed. For instance, new pond liners are good for 25 years and they cost between $25,000 and $40,000 per liner, depending on the size of the pond. I also know many of you have your favorite charities, but this is our lifestyle – the very reason we moved here – that is at stake.

For tax free donations of any amount, make checks out to The Waddell Fund and send them to The Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, P.O. Box 23019, Hilton Head Island, SC 29925.


Collins Doughtie, a 60-year resident of the Lowcountry, is a sportsman, graphic artist, and lover of nature.