Getting some reel respect S.C.’s sport fishermen wield most influence in policy, conservation

Stan Warren of Mount Pleasant prepares his line before kayaking into the ocean off Seabrook beach to attempt to catch a shark.

SEABROOK ISLAND — They were barefoot, dressed in T-shirts and swimsuits, with plans to be out on this beach as late as 3 a.m., because they have learned that after midnight you catch the biggest sharks.

The four men, professionals in their 20s and 30s, are the face of the new power brokers in coastal and offshore fishing — recreational anglers who virtually have supplanted the commercial industry in South Carolina as a lobbying force for fishing rules.

For each person holding a commercial saltwater fishing license in the state, there are now more than 300 people holding saltwater recreational licenses, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. The money they spend for gear and licenses is in the billions.

Individuals, clubs and groups are coalescing into a political advocacy bloc as hard to ignore as the large chunks of bonita hanging from the hooks of those four shark anglers on a recent summer evening at North Edisto River inlet.

The rec guys might be the best thing the natural coast has going for it, given their push to keep fishing sustainable.

Or they might be the biggest gaff in its flank, with their drives to loosen catch restrictions and keep open as fishing grounds areas that researchers say are needed to restore fish stocks they say overfishing has depleted.

Either way, they have become a force to be reckoned with.

Stan Warren didn’t really know much about angling when he formed Requiem shark fishing team in 2012. It started as an informal meet-up club, just something to do for fun.

The 28-year-old Mount Pleasant resident and a few friends began targeting large sharks because they were the biggest game out there for a group not able to afford the high-dollar marlin boats that compete in multimillion-dollar events such as The Governor’s Cup.

But the more that Warren learned, the more serious he got. Requiem now keeps detailed data on catches, baits, tides, moon phases and the like. They feed data to federal researchers who used to rely almost exclusively on commercial catch numbers.

Warren is talking about incorporating as a nonprofit, teaching about the threatened alpha predator species of coastal sharks, advocating catch-and-release and pushing to protect the right to fish for sharks on increasingly crowded beaches.

Requiem, in other words, is beginning to organize the same way as at least a half-dozen recreational saltwater fishing groups have in South Carolina over the past decade or two, wanting a bigger say in what happens in the state and region.

Charles Farmer, a retired DNR staffer, is now a lobbyist for the Coastal Conservation Association, maybe the largest and most influential of the groups. He makes no bones about its influence.

“We believe in recreational fishing and we will fight tooth and nail to be able to do that, but do it responsibly in the best way to guarantee the future of the resource,” he said. “I think it’s evidence the future looks bright, because the general public, legislature and state agencies are on the same page.”

About 478,000 people now hold saltwater recreational fishing licenses in the state, according to DNR. “That’s a lot of people. People represent votes,” said Mel Bell, DNR fisheries management director and a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the group that recommends federal fishing regulations for the region.

And it’s a huge change. Bell came to work at DNR in the early 1980s, to work with recreational fishing, when saltwater licenses weren’t required and the numbers of offshore anglers relatively few compared to commercial fishermen. “We always felt we were the little redheaded stepchild, and nobody paid any attention to us,” he said.

Far fewer boats went offshore, partly because it meant virtual dead reckoning, requiring the ability to use a compass, read charts and depth finders, he said. “Now you plug in your GPS and — boom — it takes you out to the exact spot within a few meters,” he said.

In the 1990s, coastal population began to grow rapidly and technology advanced with it, bringing more and more sports boats. The state began to require saltwater licenses. From that point, recreational groups “organized and organized and organized,” he said. It’s now nearly a billion-dollar economic driver in South Carolina alone.

Before the swarm of sport fishing boats arrived, commercial anglers were the voices in regulators’ and legislators’ ears. But they never really organized. They never had to. They were the coastal industry. Then the industry began to collapse under the weights of rising costs, stagnant or falling profits and competition.

Meanwhile, the numbers of those sports boats exploded along with the coastal resort population. More than 78,000 boats were titled in the five coastal counties in 2012, the most recent year that DNR had a breakdown for the records. That’s 100 for every single commercial fishing boat titled in the same counties in 2014.

The impact on fishing rules overall is tough to gauge so far. The fisheries council is mandated to balance regulations to provide for both commercial and recreational fishing, and does, Bell said.

Commercial anglers worry they are being edged out, and people on both sides complain it’s the other one depleting the fishery. But they rarely go at it head-to-head. They both are after a catch controlled largely by cutting off fishing when regulators say too many have been caught. They want the same thing: more fish to catch.

The frustration gets evident when the fisheries council hears from stakeholders about changing the rules. Sometimes, Wayne Mershon looks around and he’s the only one there speaking for the commercial industry, he said. Mershon is a Murrells Inlet commercial fisherman who sits on a council committee.

“The trust in the council has been broken,” he said. Commercial fishing should be first in the stakeholder’s line, recreational fishing second, he said. Instead public input is dominated by “local fishing clubs and conservation groups.”

It was apparent in the recent battle over whether to close bottom fishing in the popular and productive Georgetown Hole off Charleston. The few commercial fishing operations left — already reeling from the series of catch and season restrictions — would have to move to less abundant spots to fish.

But they weren’t out in numbers to oppose it. Recreational anglers were. They would be imposed upon to some degree, but the fish found along the ledge’s sweet spot can be caught in other places, if not so abundantly. The council voted to close only about three of a proposed 15 square miles.

Mershon and other seafood interests, largely commercial, recently organized as the Council for Sustainable Fisheries. The goal is to push for more flexibility in rules such as season and catch limits, to keep a steady supply of fish coming year round. But the group emphasizes it represents both commercial and recreational fishing.

To get a sense just how pervasive the recreational influence has become, look at red drum and black sea bass — two popular coastal recreational catches. The red drum was in serious trouble two decades ago when the state limited the catch to two per person per day and the species made a remarkable recovery.

In 2006, with state net surveys showing the red drum in an apparent slump again, the state Legislature voted to raise the catch limit to three per day — at the urging of recreational fishing groups.

Black bass used to be the sure winter catch offshore, when other species were off limits or hard to find. Anglers filled coolers with them. In 2011, federal regulations adopted a catch limit of five.

State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, who represents parts of Georgetown and Charleston County, is sponsoring a bill now in the state Legislature that would have the state take over from the federal council regulating fishing ocean waters as far out as 3 miles — the state jurisdiction line.

That could open up the black bass fishery, depending on what the state does. The state chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association is pushing for the move.

Goldfinch is an attorney, a former commercial spearfisherman who continues to spearfish, trawl and bottom-fish recreationally. He’s been on the bottom out there more than a lot of people, he said, and he knows the black bass isn’t in trouble here. The South Atlantic fishery council makes rules for a region from North Carolina to Florida.

“We are being penalized for problems Florida has,” he said.

As far as commercial anglers, “we are a dying breed, he said. Groups like the Coastal Conservation Association “stereotypically have the mindset that commercial fishing should not exist. If you want to eat it, catch it yourself.”

The advocacy groups aren’t just working at the state level. South Carolina was given $1.3 million in federal Boating Infrastructure grants this year, in a program managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The money helped finance $2.2 million in dock work — all of it aimed at recreational boating.

Seabrook Island’s Bohicket Marina — a private business – alone was given more than $830,000 to build 768 feet of transient, or “stop-in” fueling dock space, and another 258 feet to moor bigger boats.

The grants have been pushed by an alliance of 11 hunting and sport-fishing advocacy groups, including the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, one of those semi-obscure advocacy groups that works directly with state and federal legislative caucuses and resource management councils.

Its caucus in South Carolina includes Gov. Nikki Haley.

The influence of lobbyists for the recreational fishing groups is pervasive enough that three conservation lobbyists asked about it did not want to comment on the record for the story: They have to work with them.

Warren and the other shark fishermen in the Requiem group keep tabs on these other angling groups. Although they haven’t joined ranks with any yet, they know their interests are converging. It’s very likely just a matter of time, Warren said. They are worried about their right to surf fish for sharks being curtailed after a spike in shark bites and attacks earlier this summer left at least 11 beach bathers injured in the Carolinas.

The Requiem group does it the right way, Warren says, going out at time that bathers aren’t around and trying to keep a distance from anyone who is. They don’t toss bait into the surf; at Seabrook Island they carried it by kayak out 50 or 60 yards where Stono Inlet drops off abruptly to deep water.

“I think we get a bad rap” as shark fishermen, said Mike Popovich, 32, of Mount Pleasant. Instead of banning surf fishing, why not designate spots for surf fishing removed far enough from bathers, he asks.

By the time the group showed up at the Stono that August night, they already had caught and released this year 40 sharks bigger than 5 feet, including a 9-foot tiger so big you couldn’t straddle the head, Warren said.

They weren’t optimistic about their chances, working against a king tide and a full moon. Their data indicates that, for some odd reason, they don’t seem to catch sharks on a full moon. And it would turn out that they didn’t come away with a catch.

But they waded out into the swift flood tide run with the rods held high, the sun setting in violet fire over Edisto Island. There are worse ways to spend the night.

“I can’t lie and say there’s not a selfish aspect. It’s for our enjoyment,” Warren said. “But we do try to give back what we can.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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