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Cunningham, South Carolina fishermen see consensus on climate change

After talking to Charleston area fishermen Monday, Cunningham introduced a bill in Washington to require a GAO study

South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham, left, talks with constituent Taylor Tarvin, who owns a shrimp boat called Miss Paula that the congressman visited while discussing climate change on a tour with local fishermen in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Monday. (Lindsey McPherson/CQ Roll Call)
South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham, left, talks with constituent Taylor Tarvin, who owns a shrimp boat called Miss Paula that the congressman visited while discussing climate change on a tour with local fishermen in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Monday. (Lindsey McPherson/CQ Roll Call)

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — Nationally, climate change is still not a universally accepted science. But here in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Rep. Joe Cunningham claims there’s bipartisan acknowledgement of global warming as a real and urgent issue.

The freshman Democrat spent Monday with a group of fishermen from his coastline district who have seen the impacts of climate change firsthand.

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Cunningham toured Shem Creek, which is the home base for many commercial fishermen in the Charleston area. He told reporters after the tour that 30 years ago, there’d have been about 70 boats based there, but now the operating commercial fleet has been diminished to just a handful.

While there are several reasons for the decline, the one Cunningham came to speak with the fishermen about is climate change.

“What I learned today is back in August, the surface water temperatures here in the harbor were like 89 degrees,” he said. “The average in the past has been like 83 degrees. So a six-degree difference is huge.” 

Cunningham also previewed a bill he introduced when he returned to Washington on Tuesday that would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on efforts fishery management bodies have taken to adapt to climate change. The measure would ask the GAO to identify  any knowledge and funding gaps groups like the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and Regional Fishery Management Councils have faced in their work.

“One of the first steps in addressing such a big issue is to actually study the problem,” Cunningham said, noting that the essence of his bill “is to study exactly what has been changing and what is working and what is not working.”

While touring Shem Creek, Cunningham heard anecdotally from some of the fishermen about the problems they’ve faced from warming ocean waters along the coast, some of which can be attributed to an increase in hurricane activity along the Eastern Seaboard. 

Mark Marhefka, who has been a commercial fisherman since 1977 and in the Charleston area since 2000, kicked off the tour by describing to Cunningham the types of fish that have started to migrate north because of the warming water. 

The decline of available supply for the fishermen comes as costs of doing business increase. For example, Marhefka cited a $1,000 increase in the monthly rent he pays to dock his boat in Shem Creek.

Taylor Tarvin of Tarvin Seafood showed Cunningham around his shrimp boat, Miss Paula, as he and a local restaurant owner who buys from the area’s fishermen talked about the decline of shrimp in recent years.  

Some of the natural decline has made way for new business, however. Jared Hulteen left his job working at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources a few years ago to start an oyster farm. He saw a need for locally developed oysters as the population of wild oyster clusters decreased after major storms in the area would cover them with sediment. 

Hulteen does not collect wild oysters. He operates a hatchery to develop spawn and create new oyster reefs. The benefits of developing new oyster beds include providing a habitat for local fish, filtering water and fostering growth of marsh grass that helps prevent flooding, Hulteen said.

Dave Belanger, a local clam farmer, spoke about another environmental challenge: runoff from the increasing development in the Charleston area. There’s no way to measure the herbicides and pesticides that coastal-area property owners are using that, through runoff, end up polluting the waters where fishermen operate their businesses, he said.

“There’s no long-term natural resource planning,” Belanger said.

After the Shem Creek tour, Cunningham and the fishermen headed to the South Carolina Aquarium across the bridge in Charleston to continue their discussion. Joined by other commercial operators, recreational fishermen and environmental activists, Cunningham solicited the group for input on what the federal government can do to help mitigate the impacts climate change is having on area fisheries.

“To the extent we can affect positive change, it’s incumbent upon us to do that,” he said, while noting he understands there won’t be an easy fix. “We didn’t get into this problem overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.” 

Ideas floated during the session included federal funding for research and education on the effects of climate change, as well as stricter environmental regulations for development of coastal areas. 

“I don’t have all the answers,” Cunningham acknowledged as he concluded the session, but said that’s why it’s important to hear directly from fishermen about their experiences. 

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