Coast Guard Charters (copy)

Coast Guard personnel keep an eye on charter fishing boats during a license and certification patrol in Charleston Harbor on Friday, August 31, 2018. The Coast Guard is stepping up patrol efforts throughout the Southeast, targeting illegal charter operations that mislead or misrepresent themselves to customers and who operate without license or certification. Brad Nettles/Staff

Pirates, they call them — people taking anglers out for money without the effort or expense of getting properly outfitted and licensed.

The problem goads the charter boat industry. So far, the outlaws appear to be largely getting away with it at the expense of customer safety, legitimate captains and the fishery itself. They might be a factor in the depletion of species such as snapper and grouper.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council looked at one answer last week — a moratorium, a temporary stop on issuing new charter permits — as a way to regulate the desirable catch of sought-after snapper and grouper fish.

It also could cut down the number of illegally operating captains, some council members said. Others, though, said it wouldn't. 

The council voted the moratorium down. It might not have been the best answer anyway. The council's bigger problem remains unanswered: How to get those fish counted by recreational anglers at sea.

Council members — who had been estimating the abundance of the species mostly by surveying the commercial catch — have been looking at requiring the recreational catch to be reported electronically with an app as a method of getting a better handle on how many fish those boats are pulling in.

A moratorium would have allowed the council to enforce the reporting by assigning an individual number to each permit: If that captain doesn't turn in the reports, the permit would be revoked and the moratorium would keep the captain from getting another.

As it stands now, there's no rule to stop a captain who has a permit yanked from getting a new permit.

But whether that would help curtail "pirate" captains wasn't certain.

The piracy problem will be left to the U.S. Coast Guard and S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which are wrestling with the difficulties enforcing violations of the permits and other licensing.

Snapper grouper

The council looked at the moratorium as part of an ongoing, tangled effort to regulate the catch of the snapper grouper fishes offshore — species that regulators say are over-fished. The popular catches are most often targeted offshore by commercial, recreational captains and customers.

Just who is more responsible for the over-fishing — commercial or charter boats — has been bandied between the two groups for nearly as long as restrictions have been imposed. While commercial anglers fight just to stay in business, recreational anglers have gotten the larger voice in council regulations as their numbers have grown.

The charter business is booming along with those anglers. 

Commercial fishing licenses in South Carolina dropped from 3,250 in 2007 to 406 in 2017, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, recreational fishing boomed — despite the leaner catch.

Nearly 500,000 people now hold saltwater licenses in South Carolina, one of every 10 people in the state. More than 200 people in 2017 held federal permits for a charter or a headboat — a fishing charter that carries a large number of customers. That's nearly double the 137 who held permits in 2008.

The violations have escalated with the numbers. Federal, state and local marine patrols now respond to several reports per month of violations, most of them reported by legitimate captains.

But the electronic reporting is opposed by any number of the captains in the competitive business. 

"I'm in favor of accountability," said Chris Conklin, a Murrells Inlet commercial fisherman and council member, who supported the moratorium.

Conklin, though, didn't have a lot of support from the charter business. Comments made to the council opposed the moratorium by 137 to 7. 

Pirates

One of the arguments made for the moratorium was to pare down the number of people who operate illegally. But that didn't cut it among charter industry interests that would have benefited. 

Council member Chester Brewer, a Florida attorney with a recreational fishing background, made the motion that quashed any further discussion of a moratorium.

Based on the number of complaints from charter-for-hire captains, the region "has seen a lot of pirates out there," Brewer said. But his concern was slippery slope stuff, he said.

In the Gulf of Mexico, discussion of a similar moratorium led to talk of "limited entry," permanent restrictions on the number of licenses that could be issued, Brewer said. That morphed into talk of catch share, in which percentages of how many fish could be caught would be divided among captains who held permits.

"It became such a divisive issue it consumed the council," Brewer said. "It's been five years and they still haven't figured it out yet."

A moratorium doesn't solve the piracy problem, he said. People operating illegally would keep operating, moratorium or not. His solution is to step up enforcement.

"Right now, you get popped (for a violation) and you go get a new permit," Brewer said. "We need to buttress the laws already in place, not create an exclusive group of people."

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.