The "reef raiders" are back.
Commercial spear fishermen from Florida are taking thousands of pounds of game fish from South Carolina's artificial reefs.
Two or three dive boats per year will spend the summer off the S.C. coast, out on the water for two weeks at a time, diving the 52 reefs where big scamp and gag grouper lurk and flounder are said to school in layers like pancakes and where spear guns make fishing little more than a shooting gallery.
State wildlife officers have asked the federal South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council to look into the practice, which some say exploits an oversight in the region's fishery laws. The council makes the rules enforced in South Carolina waters.
When the dive boats come ashore, "they will load (the fish) up on an 18-wheeler, then they are southbound on (U.S. Highway) 17," said Sgt. Steve Pop, an officer with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "It's not a violation of federal law. But it is an issue. It's disturbing to me. The intent of those reefs is for the 'weekend warrior' " anglers who don't have the time or expertise to ferret out natural live bottoms.
A Lowcountry fisherman complained to DNR after hearing about a large number of grouper recently off-loaded in Georgetown by a dive boat. Charter boat captain Eric Heiden of Georgetown said the boats are wiping out local reefs in one or two days, then moving on to the next. On reefs where he normally caught two to three big flounder per trip, he hardly gets any anymore.
"They were unloading for quite awhile," said Seymour Birnbaum of Georgetown, who watched from his pleasure boat when one of the dive boats turned up recently at the dock.
For anglers, it's the latest outrage in an intensifying feud among the various groups of commercial, charter, headboat and recreational fishermen as catches offshore decline and federal regulators wind a tightening vise of restrictions.
The rules have helped decimate the local commercial industry and are hampering recreational anglers so badly that some say it won't be worth turning on the engines to head offshore. The federal council this week met to put finishing touches on a new set of regulations that would severely restrict grouper and snapper catches across the Southeast.
Some commercial equipment, such as black sea bass pots or trolling, is banned on the reefs; spear fishing was not included in those restrictions.
"I don't think anybody anticipated there would be commercial fishing (on the reefs)," said David Whitaker, Natural Resources fisheries management director.
How much damage the raiders are doing to the reefs is an open question. Because spear fishing is more selective than hook-and-line or trolling, it doesn't create by-catch — fish mistakenly caught and thrown back that might later die. It also targets bigger, older fish and leaves younger, smaller fish to spawn.
"The 'reef raiders' definitely do their share of shooting fish," said Rob Harding, of Mount Pleasant, a recreational diver and spear fisherman. "But in some ways it's more ecologically sound. The commercial guy doesn't want competition, but I'm sure he's had days where he crushed the fish, too. With all the regulations that are being passed, it really comes down to how much bang for the buck we get out of a fish," Harding said, referring to recreational fishing having a bigger economic impact than commercial fishing.
In 2008, commercial "dive" fishing, or spear fishing reported 21,000 pounds caught, mostly grouper and hogfish, said Whitaker, of Natural Resources. The total doesn't include flounder because flounder spear catch counts also include gigging. The number has held steady for the past five years, with only a handful of boats reporting each year.
The poundage is a lot, but nobody has looked closely enough yet to know if it's too much.
In 2008, more than 300,000 pounds of gag and scamp grouper were caught commercially overall; nearly 13,000 pounds of hogfish were caught.
"Is (dive fishing the reefs) a perception problem or is it a real problem? We'll take a look at it and see what if anything we need to do," said Robert Boyles, Natural Resources' Marine Resources Division deputy director, who sits on the federal marine fisheries council.
Vic Lloyd, of Atlantic Beach, Fla., has two dive boats spearing off South Carolina right now, the Reef Raider II and the Charlotte Marie, he said Friday. Fishing is better off South Carolina in the summer, when the hot water tends to move the fish north of Florida. He's moved boats north for the past 15 to 20 years.
He doesn't think his divers are spearing so many fish that recreational fishing is deprived.
"We don't rape the reefs or anything like that. We do take a lot of fish, don't get me wrong. (But) there are still a lot of fish out there," he said. "We're out there commercial fishing to feed the nation."