Chris Crolley wears a long, grey, shirt only those who work in the sun instinctively know to wear. His blue eyes reflect some of the button-up’s hue, as he looks out beneath his worn, woven hat with a small, winged pin. He knows what makes tourists and locals alike go “ahhh”. He’s been giving tours of Mount Pleasant’s Shem Creek for 30 years.
“That’s the Atlantic, bottle nosed dolphin,” he says. The president of Coastal Expeditions knows the wildlife; dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, as well as an array of sea and shore birds. His guests lean out, searching for a glimpse of the fin and what looks like the grin of a playful dolphin. The mammals rarely disappoint.
But as Crolley steers near the mouth of the creek, past a plethora of seafood restaurants and several shrimp boats, his smile slowly fades. Noticeably missing, like two front teeth, was a ribbon of land that’s gift was sanctuary for literally thousands of birds, known as Crab Bank. It’s now just a thread of sand where a handful of pelicans stand, waiting for the inevitable high tide. One of five such sea and shore bird sanctuaries across the South Carolina coast seems to have met its fate.
“It will be productive zero this year for young birds for the first time in a long, long time,” says Crolley. He explains rising sea levels, storms and increasing boat wakes have washed away a popular and protected nesting space.
So where have all the birds gone? Some, he says, have flocked to local beaches where their young are not protected from predators or people, and the parents don’t get much time to rest. Others he says have found refuge, like squatters, at Castle Pinckney in the Charleston Harbor. It’s a privately owner, former fortress from the Civil War.
Crolley ventures there to a spot known as Shutes Folly Island. A cacophony of birds can be heard over the crashing waves. Pelicans perch in what’s left of windows. Black skimmers scurry across a sandbar and here come those “ooohs” and “ahhhs”. There are birds nesting, even if in smaller numbers.
“There are a bunch of Tern chicks in there,” says Crolley. “I see the chicks. I see the babies.”
There’s also a giant cargo ship. It’s hard to miss. But ironically, even bigger ships could benefit these birds. The Army Corp of Engineers is dredging the harbor to 52 feet, making way for larger container ships. They’ve found something conservationists call rare; sandy soil suitable for rebuilding crab bank. The cost is roughly $4 million. But engineers say moving the sediment to Crab Bank is cheaper and more efficient, so the federal government would pick up most of the cost. Still, the Department of Natural Resources, which owns Crab Bank, would have to come up with $1.2 million by the time of that dredge, this December.
But that’s not the only, possible obstacle to what Crolley calls, “a once in a life time opportunity.”
The town of Mount Pleasant has ordered an independent study. It’s newly elected mayor Will Haynie says he and council members just need more information. “The concern is you’re about to have the equivalent of 50 acres of dredge spoil dumped at the mouth of the creek that we’ve already had to dredge in the last five years.”
The worry is soil from the newly rebuilt Crab Bank will migrate into Shem Creek and strand its shrimp boat fleet, a fleet the mayor calls rare and worth protecting. Haynie says they want to restore crab bank. They just don’t want to do so at the cost of shrimpers.
“Our effort in the study we funded is not to stop the restoration,” he said. “It is to find out if there is a best way to do it.”
The mayor says the study is on a fast track because the clock is ticking for conservationists. But he did not know when it will be finished. Meantime, members of the Coastal Conservation League say time is running out, in more ways than one.
“Seabird populations worldwide have dropped about 70 percent since the 1950s,” said Caroline Bradner. She’s the Land, Water and Wildlife Project Manager. “Shore bird populations are dropping even faster.” She spoke recently at a Mount Pleasant council meeting before members voted to the fund the independent study.
“Ultimately the birds contribute to the healthy eco system,” she said. “For the shrimp you want to eat, the red fish you like to catch, the dolphins you want to watch. Birds are a good indicator of how our environment is doing.”
Former Post and Courier journalist and nature lover David Quick wore his homemade, “Save Crab Bank T-shirt” to the council meeting to express his concerns. He says it speaks for the birds.
“They can’t speak for themselves,” he said. “I would think if they could, they would say save our home. You’ve already taken so much away from us.”
Back at his office overlooking Shem Creek, Crolley recalls the history of Crab Bank. He says it was formed from sediment in the 1950s, dredged from the Charleston Harbor by the Army Corps of Engineers. He’s not worried about the creek silting in, adding his business depends on the waterway as well.
As he looks out at a pair of brown pelicans he says should be nesting on Crab Bank, but is instead perched upon pilings, he worries about something else. His two children have grown up with Crab Bank. He has another due in December, the same month the money needed to restore crab bank needs to be raised.
“I just wonder if that little girl is ever going to see a bird nesting on Crab Bank. I don’t know. Either she will or she won’t.”