By Luana M. Graves Sellars

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, and quality of life for many Native Islanders during the 60s and 70s.

Photo Credit: Stewart Family

Before the Co-Operative, individual families relied on the waters surrounding Hilton Head Island as a means to sustain their way of life; it was the way families fed themselves. Looking forward to the days ‘catch,’ was no sport, because fishing provided the meals for the day. Breakfast was possibly shrimp and grits, lunch could have been an oyster boil steamed with fresh corn from the fields, and dinner likely consisted of 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 bring the community together for its mutual benefit, and take advantage of the thriving oyster factories and the increasing demand for fresh fish. Since most of the islanders were already fishing, they realized that they could capitalize on their labor and the natural environment if they combined their efforts and worked cooperatively.  Working together unified and empowered them, and enabled them to better serve their clientele, as well as their own economic interests.

Photo Credit: Stewart Family

The Hilton Head Fishing Co-Operative brought so much to the island. It gave 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 because the boat captains provided safety for each other while on the water.

Photo Credit: Stewart Family

According to the November 1969 Ebony Magazine article on the Co-Op:

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 three 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 Captain 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 everyday, 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.

Cloudy Morning Photo Credit: Linda Peterson

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 their 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, DC to hand deliver a petition with more than 40,000 signatures to the Secretary of the Interior, Walter Hinkle.  The delivery of the petition gave the Co-Op national exposure because they took on a major conglomerate. For the Islanders, this had Biblical proportions; it was the David and Goliath story all over again.

Photo Credit: Stewart Family

This brave effort by David 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 sailors 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.

Unfortunately, the Co-Op was 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 being brought into US markets brought in heavy competition. All of this undercut the viability and profitability of the Co-Op.

The tide of the Hilton Head Fishing Co-Op may have come 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. 

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