In the spring of 2019, students at Emory University enrolled in a special topics field course studying Coastal Georgia: Geography, History and Politics of Fishing Culture in the Department of Environmental Sciences.
Students learned in the field and classroom about Georgia’s unique coastal cultural heritage. The class focused on the culture, history, and geography of Georgia’s coastal communities and fishing industry, and the policy and environmental challenges of fishing. Students participated in social science field research to document the history and current conditions in Georgia’s fishing industry, learning a variety of methods including documentary research, photography, GPS, and interviews.
Day 1 – Sunday, March 10 – Ananda Woods
The first day of our Georgia coastal adventure started with lunch. The Old School Diner, an eclectic-yet-cozy seafood restaurant in Townsend, Georgia, left us with an immediate first impression: we were greeted first by the owner, Chef Jerome, and then by his scarlet macaw, Maxine. As we entered what we had perceived to be a small at-home restaurant, we soon discovered that the interior of the building was deceptively large. The restaurant was decorated with fishing nets, colorful marine wildlife, and thousands of photographs that were plastered on every available surface, besides the floors and tables. Chef Jerome was happy to answer our questions about the restaurant: he had been running this business for thirteen years, the seafood was brought fresh from the Georgia coast, and the photographs were a combination of patrons, people he knew, and celebrities he was a fan of. Up until three years ago, Chef Jerome had been catching his seafood himself: “I’d catch up to seventeen hundred pounds of shrimp every day,” he joked, “so the government started making regulations.” The food was served up hot, fresh, and delicious barely fifteen minutes after we’d stepped in the door, and we were left with plenty of leftovers.
After lunch, we had some time to kill, so we headed to the nearby Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge. While we were primarily interested in investigating some old historical relics we’d heard had been left behind, during our journey we saw that the salt marshes of Georgia are absolutely teeming with wildlife. Birds were abundant, as were turtles, and we spotted several alligators along the way. There was also a disconcerting number of black ants, but they did not seem particularly interested in us. We made our way to an old historic graveyard, that was founded before Harris Neck had been seized by the government, and those who lived there had been pushed out. Some of the graves dated back to the 19th century, and it was rumored that a few of the people buried there had been freedmen. Fascinatingly, graves dated even back to the 1880s were adorned with fresh flower bouquets, implying that whoever these people were had been so influential in their community that they are still honored to this day.
We left Harris Neck at around four in the afternoon, and began to make our way down to Brunswick to meet up with the rest of our research team at the Georgia Marine Extension Services (or MAREX). We met with Bryan Fluech, the director of the Marine Extension Services at Brunswick and our research partner for this trip. He gave us a full tour of the facility, of both the inside; featuring baby turtles with identifying numbers sharpied on the backs of their tiny shells, and the outside; with a large warehouse full of ancient fishing gear. The rows of old nets hung from the rafters of the warehouse served as a sort of timeline of the progress of the fishing industry over time, from the boxy, clunky TEDs that were used years ago to the elegant solutions we use now.
The Marine Extension Services also have a shrimping boat that is used for relevant research: according to Bryan, it was confiscated by the federal government from a fisher who specialized in ‘square grouper,’ or marijuana. The boat is deceptively large, with the area below deck mostly empty: Bryan explains that on a regular fishing boat, the empty space would be filled with ice and catch. But the harbor is quiet now, and the tide is low, so none of the commercial fishing boats nearby seem particularly keen on filling themselves either. The only people who are busy right now are the birds, who are raucously squawking as they fly from boat to boat, looking for their next meal. Seagulls, pelicans, ibis, ducks, and a few smaller birds I was unable to identify flit back and forth across the boat-filled landscape, yet another reminder of the close relationship that the fishing industry has to the local wildlife.
Day 2 – Monday, March 11 – Emilio Arias
We begin our first official day of field research bright and early. After breakfast we break up into our individual groups and head out to our specific docks. Luckily for our group most of our sites are near Brunswick and the Marine Extension Service. As we drive into Knight’s Seafood and City Dock we could see how much disrepair these docks were in and could only imagine the quality of work of the fishermen. We had previously discussed this in class but it astonishing to see these sites in person. We maneuvered these locations with hesitation because we knew that the fishing culture was that of close ties and difficult to pierce. However, as we explored these sites we ran into workers, who although seemed of hard skin, gladly talked to us about their work life and such. It was great getting an insider perspective in this industry and becoming aware of their issues.
Our last site of the day was on Jekyll Island, one of the more famous barrier islands dotted by beaches, bike trails, and historic sites. Right off the bat we had difficulty finding the exact location of the dock seeing as how it had apparently moved locations since the 1975 feasibility study. Where the dock was originally located was now a wharf for dolphin tours and there was no remnants of dock usage. The island also had a marina which was a possible location of the dock too so we decided to inspect it as well. In the end we recorded both coordinates of the sites and decided to finalize our results later on with the group that had researched the dock on Jekyll island.
We ended our day at the archive center, looking for data that could be useful for our research on the docks. Since most of the information found there was on Camden and Glynn county I didn’t have much to research there. Instead I reflected on my day and read through some old newspapers and published pieces on marshlands. It’s great being out here on the coast getting to experience this special environment and delving into the fishing culture. The docks actually reminded me of the of warehouses I grew up playing in while my parents worked. It was almost melancholy walking through these facilities and yards and imagining myself playing in them. There wasn’t anything specific throughout the work day that was unbearable, besides the gnats.
Reading the old newspapers in the archives today was the most eye-opening experience today. I was reading about an oil spill that occurred in 1974 that was caused by none other than the Gilman Paper Co. This same paper company has had a monopoly in this part of town for many years. It’s interesting being here now seeing a paper company in the backdrop of the town, pumping fumes into the air and pondering the sort of impact it has on the surrounding environment. Reading the newspaper article I got a sense of non-urgency toward the public about the damaging effects of the oil on the marshlands. It’s fascinating to think about how our perspective on the environment has changed in the past few decades and how much damaged we have caused to this special ecosystem.
Day 3 – Tuesday, March 12 – Maya Bradford
Today was a full day on the Georgia Coast. We woke up early and ate breakfast while prepping our field notes. Then we packed up and got to the UGA Marine Extension (MarEx) in Brunswick, GA around 9 am. At MarEx, we met Truck, a fisherman who had been shrimping all his life. He experienced the industry decline that began in the 1970s and 1980s and the effects of which we are now documenting.
The decline of the fishing industry is a strong theme of this course, and we are seeing evidence of it firsthand each day we spend in the field. Truck is just one of many fishermen who have a historical memory of this decline, caused in part by competition from international imports, loss of infrastructure, and greying of the fleet. In the 1980s, Truck says, the money wasn’t coming in abundance like it had before. The imports started coming in and it couldn’t balance out like it used to. Then the support stopped coming in. When the shrimp started declining, everything else started declining.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Truck said, “the fishermen ruled the town.” Everyone knew the fishermen, and the fishermen preparing to go out on the water wouldn’t have to pay for their groceries until after they came back and sold their catch. The fishermen would just load up for their trips at the grocery store and sign their names and their boat names. Not only that, but Truck feels that at that time, the fishermen had political support in Atlanta. “The politicians were on our side,” Truck said. “It doesn’t feel that way anymore.”
Next, we went to explore Jekyll Island. We started at the north end of the island and saw the driftwood beach. Jekyll Island has net sand loss on the north end and net accretion on the south end. This confused me, but I think it is because even though longshore drift is north to south, the ebb tidal delta from St. Simons (the island north of Jekyll) isn’t sufficient to temporarily reverse longshore currents on the north end of Jekyll. This is definitely something I will ask Dr. Martin about first thing on Monday!
Regardless, there is sediment loss on the north end of the island, and as a result, we walked along a beach that was littered with dead live oaks and loblollys; the skeletal remains of a maritime forest inundated by the rising sea. The driftwood beach is an active example of Walther’s Law; the adjacent sea is moving on top of the barrier island environments.
For the second half of the day, we went to three of our sites from the 1975 dock census. The first place was a middle man type processing plant that buys shrimp and crabs from the docks and processes them. Nothing much had changed at this plant. Next, we went to a site that was occupied by a shrimping dock called Kittles Seafood in 1975. Today, the site was home to Gore Marine Corporation, a marine towing business. We spoke to the Gores, who told us they bought the property in a government auction in 1978, and that the dock was in complete disrepair. This indicated that Kittles Seafood, which in 1975 had 7 trawlers, had a quick demise. Gore Seafood operated as a shrimp dock through 2002, and then they changed to marine towing because of the declining industry. “We didn’t leave the fishing industry,” Mr. Gore told us. “The fishing industry left us.”
Next, we went to the 1975 site of Skipper’s Seafood. This site is now occupied by a restaurant, Skipper’s Fish Camp, but this came as no surprise to us. We had already found this out in our pre-field trip research, and it is one of Dr. Yandle’s favorite places to eat. We ate here for dinner and enjoyed local oysters, shrimp, flounder, and crab.
Day 4 – Wednesday, March 13 – Shantal Robinson
Today, there were many conflicting/confusing accounts about the location of our sites and where the ones that were no longer there had gone. The Brannen sites gave the most trouble, as there were three different men who went by the name – the William Brannen site, the Gene Brannen site, and the W.B. Brannen’s seafood site. Team M.O.M. gave me a lead that W.B. Brannen’s site was near the Sapelo Island Visitor Center, a place we had visited today. The Center runs out a ferry dock business to visit the island, and there is a possibility that the Georgia government (Department of Natural Resources) essentially forced W.B. Brannen to sell the site for the ferry dock. Looking at recent maps versus the 1975 Inventory, there is a strong possibility that the sites are related.
With another site, Charlie did confirm our hunch that Jack Wards Seafood was dissolved and became Sapelo Shrimp Company. There were five or six trawlers present at the dock when we visited. Bill Harris, the co-owner of the dock, told us that a “group of lawyers” had bought the dock from the Wards, who he described as a “family of brothers and sisters”. This confirmed my family history research on the Ward family – the site went from C.W. Ward to his daughter, Marjorie Hatcher, and she ended up selling to a “Southern Coastal Investment” – these might be the lawyers.
Before today, I did not know whether the Brannen location belonged to Gene Branner (W.B.’s son) or to William Branner, another fishermen. Based on cross referencing the map of the Brannen site with the current location of the Fish Dock (Charlie’s restaurant), I had originally thought that Phillips Seafood and Brannen’s Seafood were connected. However, meeting with Charlie Phillips at his restaurant today, he clarified that there was not a dock at his site before his family purchased it in the 1980s – in fact it was actually a real estate property. Mr. Phillips gestured further up the coast a few hundred feet away from his restaurant to an old dock and distinctly said “Brannen didn’t lease the dock [after it closed] because he lived right there.” While some of Team Jellyfish thought that Charlie was talking about W.B. Brannen specifically, we later ran into a contradiction with the statements of a man running Sapelo Island Shellfish. I think this man was Mike Townsend, but we never got his name. Both Charlie and this man said that the dock was torn down, with Charlie stating that it might have closed in the 1980s (but the dock still sat there until recently).
At the site, there were the remnants of a dock. The man pointed to a house right next to the dock and said “Gene Brannen’s house”! Later on, I looked up the property records of that home and saw that it was titled to a Gene F. Brannen, and Gene got a permit in 2016 for the “demolition of an old shrimp dock.” Mystery site solved! I also looked on Google Maps in the area – the photos were dated back to 2007 – and saw an active dock. There were several trucks, a wooden packing house, and a shrimp trawler obscured behind the building. One question I still have to research is if Charlie was correct and Brannen’s shut down in the 1980s, who was running that dock until at least 2007?
Day 4 – Wednesday, March 13 – William Park
Today was another confusing day. After breakfast at the Bed and Breakfast, we prepared to meet Captain Charlie Phillips at his restaurant and seafood processing plant. A McIntosh native, Cap. Phillips was able to clear up a lot of our mysteries regarding the local docks. Ironically, as more light was cast onto our trip, even more shadows were created. The original 1975 Dock Census listed Jack Ward’s Seafood Inc. to be located where the Buccaneer Club Restaurant stands. However, Captain Phillips told us that Jack Ward’s was actually Sapelo Shrimp Co. and is right next to his restaurant – the one we were eating at that day! Furthermore, our original 1975 census listed Sapelo Shrimp Co. as a totally different facility, unaffiliated with Jack Ward’s. If all this is very confusing to you, it was very confusing to us as well. This scenario is representative of our entire trip. There have been no easy answers and many difficult questions. Again, this proved to me how little we knew, especially compared to the seasoned veterans like Captain Phillips.
Knowledge of place is so important if one is to understand how that system works. Without true understanding, researchers are unable to quantify all variables. As outsiders, our Emory research team faces this problem. We are unable to fully assess the Georgia commercial shrimping industry. Therefore, connections like Captain Phillips are crucial to our ability to create meaningful data. Beyond their experience and knowledge, they lend credibility and legitimacy to our study. In fact, I argue that without Bryan Fleuch (UGA Sea Grant Connection) and Captain Philips, we would not receive as many responses as we have had. Since Sea Grant is a program to connect university research to the community, it is imperative that we involve the community by interviewing as many fishermen as possible.
When our team arrived at an empty lot where Brannen’s Seafood once stood, we encountered another shrimper and owner of Sapelo Island Seafood Inc. Our conversation was brief and as we parted ways, he called back to us, “Try to do something for us stragglers!” The stragglers he referred to were the brave few who were toughing it out in the Georgia shrimping industry. I hope that this research trip will be fruitful enough to produce results that will positively impact the men and women I have met.
Day 5 – Thursday, March 14 – Medha Prakash
Today was our last day at the charming bed and breakfast in Darien. After an early breakfast, we headed out to our sites for the day. Our first stop was Golden Seafoods International, a jellyfish or “jellyball” plant. We met the owner who told us about jellyballing. The jellies are caught in quantities of tens of thousands of pounds and brought to the plant. They are first washed to remove the slimy secretion and then cured in a salt and alum solution for 7 to 10 days before being shipped out, primarily to Japan and China.
Our second stop was what we thought was Valona Seafood, but was actually Shell Co. Shrimp Company until the end of last shrimping season. The owners were in the process of transferring its lease to a new company, and had quite a few shrimp boats but no dock infrastructure to unload the catch. We spoke to a very friendly fisherman who told us that before Shell Co., the site had been Shell Creek and before that, King Shrimp. He also had a brother in law who owned a seafood retail store for some time, which is how he became interested in fishing.
Our last site was just down the road: Watson and Redding, which was actually Valona Seafood until last year. A friendly passerby told us that his aunt and uncle used to own it, but when his uncle passed away, his aunt sold the dock at the end of the last shrimping season. The derelict dock will soon be converted into a waterfront property.
After lunch at a local cafe, we stopped by the Bull Street Savannah Public Library, where we did some research on local history and genealogy. Afterwards, we headed to the UGA Marine Institute on Skidaway and dropped our bags before driving to Tybee Island. We spent a sunny half hour on the beach before eating dinner and driving back to Skidaway.
Day 6 – Friday, March 15 – Olivia Milloway
After a hearty breakfast of the best grits I’ve ever had, we boarded the R/V Sea Dawg to explore the estuaries surrounding Skidaway Island. Estuaries are home to tidally influenced ecosystems that are fostered by nutrient rich brackish water and play an important role in the life cycle of many marine animals. To sample these diverse, rich, and dynamic ecosystems, our captain took us out to trawl in Wassaw Sound. Crawfish, our captain for the day, used a smaller version of the trawl nets commonly found on commercial fishing boats. The nets were dragged behind the boat, scraping the bottom of the sound so that the disturbed benthic marine animals would swim up and into our net. Crawfish told us that dolphins have been known to untie the end of trawling nets so they can catch a free feast of fish, crabs, and other organisms that are caught up in the trawl nets. Although we didn’t see any dolphins, we saw flock of seabirds stalk a couple of crab boats as they made their way through the sound to reach the tidal creeks and rivers where they set their blue crab traps. We only trawled for fifteen minutes, partly due to regulations on commercial fishing that excludes using any equipment in sounds due to their ecological importance. Another reason for the short trawl was because our net lacks a TED (turtle excluder device) so that any turtles caught in our net could be saved.
Fifteen minutes was more than enough time, though. We picked up a plethora of marine animals, including the following species: whiting, flounder, oyster toadfish, squid, white shrimp, butter fish, horseshoe crab, stingray, hermit crab, sea robin, hake, sea pansy, sea slug, stone crab, blue crab, putonid crab, sea sponge, and anemone. After Crawfish introduced us to each species, we sorted and counted each individual for research purposes. The animals were taken back to the aquarium to be used as bait, added to the touch tanks, or in the case of the crabs and stingrays, returned to the estuary.
Once back on land, we learned about UGA’s efforts to help establish a commercial oyster aquaculture on Georgia’s coast. Georgia is uniquely situated to grow oysters with incredible speed and efficiency. Warmer water temperatures allow oysters to grow and reach sexual maturity much faster than oysters grown in colder waters. Georgia’s coastal waters are also nutrient rich and full of phytoplankton that are a staple food for growing oysters. The important work done at the Oyster Hatchery will hopefully ultimately help drive legislation to create a sustainable industry that can help fuel the coastal Georgian economy for years to come.
After lunch at Sweet Potatoes Kitchen, a colorful and cozy southern restaurant, we headed off to the last day of field work. Two of the sites we visited today no longer exist and the other was closed for the day. However, we did run into an elderly Thunderbolt native selling bait by a public pier who pointed us in the right direction to find our two closed sites. He was a wealth of knowledge, reminding us to “soak up like a sponge soaks up water” everything that we’re seeing, hearing, and tasting on the Georgia coast because it won’t be here much longer—a common sentiment we’ve heard all along the coast.
As we’ve combed the waterfronts of Coastal Georgia for the past week, I’ve come to better understand the stretch of a little more than one hundred miles that makes up this distinct region. I’m no longer a stranger to Spanish moss, the silhouette of a brown pelican, or the sweet smell of a salt marsh. All along the coast, themes of aging boats and increasingly expensive repairs, a dwindling and unreliable workforce, and a deep-seated distrust of governmental regulations are woven into the many narratives I’ve heard. Each conversation I’ve had with a Captain, dock hand, or old-timer; each meal of fried green tomatoes or peel and eat shrimp; each historic newspaper that I studied have all given me a glimpse into the shifting culture around the Coastal Georgia fishing industry.