Lives on the Sea: Where are the big fish?
The anglers were just offshore Charleston, following birds circling above baitfish, when they stumbled onto something unheard of -- trophy red drum, hundreds of them, thrashing the surface in a feeding frenzy.
They pulled in and released one after another last November. Big ones, the size that nowadays makes a trip if you catch just one. It was like something from another time.
"It was very new to me," said Capt. Tucker Blythe of Grey Ghost Charters. Then he said something that might make a lot of anglers uncomfortable. "I think maybe the schools are getting stronger and there's so much more of them out there because of the regulations. They really seem to be thriving."
Regulations are the flashpoint of contention in the debate over offshore fishing.
Federal fish stock managers have been tightening and re-tightening restrictions on the catch of sought-after food fish and trophies out there since the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1996 because their survey counts suggest that the stocks are diminishing below the numbers that can sustain them.
The restrictions have shredded the commercial fishing fleet in South Carolina, and anglers have said they are crippling the $600 million per year recreational saltwater fishing industry that brings thousands of boats on millions of trips offshore per year.
Commercial and recreational anglers dispute the counts as a spotty, inaccurate sampling of a fishery that spans from North Carolina to the Florida Keys. Regulators frankly concede that the science is not as good as it could be.
The fish are out there, anglers say. But how many?
Anglers made a lot of the same arguments against restrictions on the inshore red drum in the early 1980s, when S.C. Department of Natural Resources surveys showed that the popular catch was declining. The new, tighter regulations were put in place; the stock is now estimated to be 20 times what it was then.
What Blythe found offshore last November wouldn't have been seen a decade ago, not in those numbers at that "brood stock" size. But there was a time not too long before when drum and other species offshore were found in schools like that.
The old photographs hang on marina walls or sit in library files from North Carolina to Florida. They are all alike, a group of pleased fishermen and women grinning in front of racks full of huge fish.
Longtime angler O.C. Polk of Mount Pleasant doesn't think even the bottom species like grouper and snapper are in so much trouble that regulators need to curtail or shut down fishing like they are now doing. But the catch of snapper and grouper has fallen off, he concedes.
He talks about the old days when you would go out and fill a fish box by nine or ten in the morning, then have to turn around and come back simply because you ran out of room on the boat for fish.
"In the '60s and '70s, you caught so many bottom fish you didn't think they'd ever run out," he said. "There should have been something done (about fishing pressure) about 20 years ago."
A photograph displayed dockside in Georgetown at the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival in January shows four dapper-dressed men and two women in blouses and skirts sitting in front of a string of 19 trophy grouper. One of them used only a hand line, the caption notes. The photo is circa 1910.
DNR marine researcher Wallace Jenkins said his late father-in-law used to talk about hand-lining large red drum from boats just offshore in the 1930s. He would tell Jenkins that the water would be red with fish as far as you could see.
There's a YouTube video that shows a group of Murrells Inlet overnight bottom anglers coming into dock and pulling out of the hold grouper after grouper as big as they are. That was shot in the 1970s.
To be sure, size restrictions and other limits keep a lot of those big fish off the docks nowadays. But the present-day boat photos of the throw-back catch don't show them that big in those numbers. And, as fishing researcher Don Hammond said, nobody takes pictures of small fish.
Anglers in those days didn't have GPS, sophisticated fish-finding sonar, pinpoint weather forecasts, scented lures, braided line and fluorocarbon leader, unsinkable and fast boats with enormous range, unlimited advice, reports or Internet information. Despite the advances, most of the state record saltwater fishing catches are decades old.
Partly, that's because of recent-year catch restrictions. But some of those records date to the 1960s and '70s. One angler who viewed the Murrells Inlet video recently said that he wished he could experience just one day of fishing like that.
More than 80,000 South Carolina residents hold saltwater fishing licenses, a number that does not include out-of-state license owners and some tourist anglers.
At the multimillion- dollar industry's peak before the 2008 recession, recreational anglers were making more than 2.5 million trips per year offshore.
A commercial fleet still operates offshore, even if the number of boats has dropped. The fleet faces what Murrells Inlet fisherman Larry Jones called "derby fishing" -- nearly all boats in the region chasing up and down the coast to the same spots, at the same time, after the same catch, when they are restricted from catching other fish.
"It's a very safe hypothesis" that the fishing pressure has depleted the relative size and abundance of brood stock fish, researcher Hammond said.
It's incontrovertible that fishing pressure, with every single angler looking for a trophy fish, will tend to take the biggest fish out of a stock. Because of restrictions, the remaining fish are harvested at an earlier age, so fewer grow large.
When Hammond worked for DNR, the Atlantic spadefish was a largely ignored catch until he introduced the idea of "jelly ball" baiting, using pieces of jelly fish.
Anglers began pulling in spades as big as 10 pounds. But since then, the average size of the catch has steadily diminished, Hammond said. "I think that's indicative of any stock of fish that's being exploited."
There are a lot of factors at play in a diminishing stock. Yellowfin tuna have all but disappeared from offshore fishing, but are still being caught on the far side of the Gulf Stream, far out to sea.
The Lowcountry coastal waters are fringe habitat for the fish, Hammond said. And when the population diminishes, the species tends to fall back to its core habitats.
The science behind assessing fish stocks hasn't yet taken into account that nomad nature of a lot of species, Hammond said.
Jack Crevalles turned up in Charleston Harbor -- seemingly out of nowhere -- in the late 1970s. For a run of six or seven years, anglers slayed them, he said. Then they vanished again.
"Ask me what normal is and I don't know," Hammond said. "The ocean is dynamic. I learned a long time ago not to predict."
As with a lot of anglers, charter boat captain Blythe doesn't like the newer regulations; he doesn't think they are fair or work well. Stocks are diminishing because of mismanagement, years of fishing abuse and the pressure of so many anglers, he said.
But the red drum are "one case example of a good management practice of a specific type of fish," he said.