In just over three weeks, the S.C. Governor's Cup Billfishing Series will begin its 26th season. During the previous 25 years, offshore fishing enthusiasts have caught and released several thousand blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish.

In enjoying their hobby, the offshore fishermen also have provided invaluable data for scientists monitoring and studying Atlantic billfish. And over the course of the Governor's Cup, the dream of the late Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., a change in culture took place. Instead of every legal billfish being brought in for display, most were released. During the past 10 Governor's Cup Series, participants have released 1,883 billfish - 385 blue marlin, 218 white marlin and 1,280 sailfish - and brought 15 blue marlin to the docks to be weighed.

Wallace Jenkins of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, program coordinator for the Governor's Cup Series (govcup.dnr.sc.gov), said that between 2002 and 2005, 150 billfish were tagged with pop-off satellite tags that relayed information about billfish migrations, including their journeys up and down the water column.

During each Governor's Cup tournament, biologists visit with every boat that fishes and collect data not only on billfish but other species as well.

"This data is the only tournament data set that has catch per unit effort for these species and we've been doing it since 1977," Jenkins said. "It's a very valuable long-term data set. That's why we work so hard in the summer interviewing boats, how many rods they fished, what time lines went in the water, whether they used natural bait or artificial lures. Most tournaments only keep track of the fish brought to the scale. We keep track of how many fish were caught."

This year's tournament schedule is:

May 21-24: 47th annual Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament

June 4-7: Bohicket Marina Invitational Billfish Tournament

June 18-21: Carolina Billfish Classic, Toler's Cove

July 9-12: MegaDock Billfishing Tournament, City Marina

July 23-26: Edisto Marina Billfish Tournament

Jenkins said there is only one significant rule change for the coming season and that pertains to a non-billfish category, the tunas. This year the only tunas that will count for Governor's Cup points are yellowfin, blackfin, bigeye or bluein tuna.

Scoring remains the same with released blue marlin worth 600 points, white marlin 300 points and sailfish 200 points. Legal blue marlin brought to the dock score one point per pound; white marlin and sailfish are catch and release only.

Showtime, based out of Toler's Cove, won the 2013 Governor's Cup Series after releasing eight blue marlin, one white marlin and four sailfish over the course of the five tournaments. Showtime is owned by Fred Hardwick and captained by Wink Doerzbacher. Showtime won the Bohicket and Edisto tournaments.

Second place went to the Georgetown boat Rascal, owned by Norman Pulliam and captained by Mark Rogers, with 5,075 points for releasing six blue marlin and seven sailfish.

Sportin' Life, owned by Manly and Graham Eubank and captained by Mike Glaesner, weighed the heaviest blue marlin with a 534.2-pound catch by angler Dixon Pearce II during the season-opening Georgetown tournament.

A highlight of this year's Governor's Cup Billfishing Series will be a return of the Harry Hampton Memorial Wildlife Fund (hamptonwildlifefund.org) banquet and auction at 6 p.m. June 20 in conjunction with the Carolina Billfish Classic.

"Over the last couple of years that tournament has focused fundraising on the South Carolina Memorial Reef (scmemorialreef.com) project, but now that's fully funded they are working with the Harry Hampton Fund, which is a great supporter of the Department of Natural Resources," Jenkins said. "In March the Hampton Fund gave DNR a check for $150,000 and it has supported the Memorial Reef and scholarships to high school and college students. It's something we are happy to be able to give back and be involved with."

Construction is complete on the first barge and well underway on the second barge that will be deployed 50 miles off of Charleston in an area known as the Charleston Deep Reef. Weather issues have delayed the deployment of the first barge, but deployment is expected soon.