The state wants to crack down on commercial spearfishing on recreational artificial reefs. But officials say that even with new laws, there's only so much wildlife officers can do.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has asked the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council about the feasibility of limiting commercial anglers to the same "bag limit," or fish catch per trip, as recreational divers on the state's offshore reefs. That is usually only a few of each species. Currently, commercial divers have no limits except for large federal quotas.
It's a ticklish question because the reefs belong to the state but the waters are governed by federal regulation.
"We haven't ever done anything like that," said Bob Mahood, director of the Charleston-based fishery management council, which sets the rules for this region. Mahood said he would consult with the council's attorneys.
Meanwhile, staff from the DNR's Law Enforcement and Marine Resources divisions are brainstorming other regulation options and how to enforce them. Officials concede that, new rules or not, there's only so much they can do offshore. Federal funding for DNR to patrol offshore has been cut by more than 90 percent and no state money has replaced it. U.S. Coast Guard crews have port security and other new duties, and there's only one federal fisheries officer for the state, said Col. Alvin Taylor, DNR law enforcement deputy director.
"Bottom line — there's not as much law enforcement out there as probably should be," he said. "It's tough enforcement work, 60 miles offshore. We'll check them as often as we can."
Recreational groups protested commercial spearfishing after reports were made of the recent harvest of thousands of pounds of grouper by two Florida-based boats. Commercial spearfishing is now legal on the reefs, but the reefs were placed for and with revenue from recreational anglers.
Two or three commercial dive boats per year spend the summer on the state's 52 artificial reefs, diving where big scamp and gag grouper lurk and flounder are said to school in layers like pancakes. In 2008, commercial dive-fishing, largely spearfishing, reported 21,000 pounds caught, mostly of grouper and hogfish. The total spear-fishing flounder catch isn't compiled separately from a count that includes gigging.
Federal regulators consider grouper overfished, and restrictions are tightening to manage the stock.
Charter boat Capt. Eric Heiden told the S.C. Natural Resources board Wednesday about eyewitness reports of a football field-long stack of grouper on a Georgetown dock that was 3 feet high.
"South Carolina is the only state that doesn't require out-of-state boats to announce their arrival so DNR can inspect the catch. I fish these (reefs). There are no fish left on most of them," he said.
Inspections are an issue, said Robert Boyles, deputy director for the Marine Resources Division at DNR. "We don't have the bodies" to be on site every time a boat pulls in. DNR relies on "random enforcement," showing up occasionally unannounced at the docks so that the commercial boats don't know when inspectors will be waiting.