Failing the ocean?

Pink soft coral and brown fuzzy hydroids were among the first organisms to colonize the Edisto Offshore Reef. The 15 year-old reef attracts vermillion snapper, tomtates, spottails and pinfish.

Natural Resources

South Carolina is one of 15 states that have failed to protect the near-shore ocean because they haven’t established marine protected areas that don’t allow fishing.

That’s the conclusion of a recent report by the Marine Conservation Institute. There’s just one little problem with it: sand.

The three-mile state jurisdiction off South Carolina is a largely flat, sandy bottom where fish don’t congregate.

“We don’t have the same type of coral reef, kelp forest or even rocky bottom habitats that are found in near shore areas in other places such as Hawaii, Florida or California. The (organisms) that occupy our waters tend to come and go seasonally,” said Mel Bell, S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries office director. “What limited hard bottom areas we might have can come and go as well as sands move around. There’s really nothing to make into a Marine Protected Area.”

Institute scientists defended the report, saying that even sand habitats are important to maintaining biodiversity, or a healthy variety of animals and plants.

“All habitats can improve when we don’t kill things ... ideally we should be protecting representative ecosystems of every kind: sandy, rocky, muddy and across all depths,” said Lance Morgan, institute president.

No-take or no-fishing protected areas are a more cost-effective strategy than species by species management, the report said. The report compared MPAs to seed banks on land.

Bell said the report makes “a misleading assumption about the proper use of and benefits from MPAs, as well as a mischaracterization of the significant efforts most coastal states, including South Carolina, have taken over the years to implement effective stewardship of our natural marine resources.”

In fact, a lot of the “hard bottom” in state waters offshore is the work of the state, a series of artificial reefs managed as special zones that don’t allow commercial fishing.

“The goal of the Marine Conservation Institute seems to be to designate all of the world’s oceans as no fishing zones. It’s clear that the institute has not done their homework concerning South Carolina’s efforts to create fish habitat and to support sustainable fisheries,” said Tom Swatzel, a Murrells Inlet deep-sea charter fisherman who is a South Atlantic Fishery Management Council member. The council regulates fishing in federal waters farther out.

Both the council and DNR manage species largely by catch limits. At least eight Marine Protected Areas are spaced across the deep ocean hard bottom in federal waters off South Carolina, comprising more than 500 square nautical miles, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The regional fishery council manages those areas through catch limits and by closing off some fishing, like bottom fishing for depleted snapper-grouper species, while allowing fishing in waters above the bottom.

“Simply slowing overall fishing mortality or by-catch rates is not as foolproof as protecting places from fishing. No-take marine reserves are the strongest management tool for saving thousands of species and recovering their habitats,” the report said.

Along with special management zones, the state manages its species with size and catch limits, along with occasional closures when large die-offs occur due to factors like the cold. That approach has restored depleted species such as red drum as plentiful, popular catches.

“Biodiversity in our near shore waters would be naturally lower than what you would expect to find on a coral reef, for example.

That doesn’t at all mean that it’s not healthy — just a different type of habitat and ecosystem,” Bell said. “Overall, I would say that the biodiversity is what you would expect to find on sand bottom and the transient resources encountered are healthy.”

Closures here are partial or temporary largely in response to recreational and commercial anglers who say restrictions are crippling the $600 million per year industry in South Carolina.

“There’s a good bit of area out there already protected. MPAs are one tool in the (management) box. And it’s a tool that comes with a cost,” Bell said. “For us, I don’t see the particular need to use that tool.”