‘The Hole’ a spawning sanctuary for big fish?

Mark Marhefka completes some last-minute details to his boat as he waits for the tide to rise in Shem Creek before launching Friday to go fishing at the Georgetown Hole.

The Georgetown Hole is the stuff of legend — tiers and tiers of deep ocean ledges swarmed by species after species of fish. It’s the generations-old “sweet spot” where boats once pulled holds full of the monsters seen in the old photos, game fish almost as big as a man.

Those fish are mostly gone today, but the Hole remains the destination for nearly anyone who heads offshore with a line. Now regulators want to put the bottom off-limits as a marine spawning sanctuary to help restore the overall stock and maybe bring back those monster fish.

The reasoning behind it is sound: “This is where the big guys reproduce,” said marine scientist Will Heyman of LGL Ecological Research Associates.

But the blowback is expected to be huge, even though the sanctuary wouldn’t close the trolling waters off the bottom, and would still leave at least some bottom fishing grounds around it.

Those trolling waters are a sports fishing mecca. Upwelling currents push bait fish into the waiting mouths of tuna, dolphin and wahoo that sports fishing enthusiasts are after — and guard zealously with associations that have coalesced into a political lobbying force.

Meanwhile, for a shrinking, regulation-belabored commercial fleet, the bottom closing would be a big chop at one of the fewer and fewer prime catch areas left.

“You will have a public outcry,” Wayne Mershon, a Murrells Inlet commercial fisherman who sits on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council committee that has recommended the sanctuary, and who personally opposes it.

The Georgetown Hole sits about 50 miles off and slightly north of Charleston. It’s a distinct promontory along a scarp of the Continental Shelf, sticking out much like a seashore cape. That shape is its secret — the deep-hole crook in the “elbow” of the cape acts like a cove to give the biggest fish a protected nook to tuck themselves away to spawn.

Researchers believe that when the promontory was above water in prehistoric times, the earliest people in South Carolina would have camped around that cove among icebergs, to hunt walrus and whales feasting on the rich foods caught in eddies of the currents.

Those tricky fast currents persist today, along with sharks so thick that bottom fishing is problematic because so many lines are snapped and so much bait is lost.

“The Georgetown Hole is like the mountains in North Carolina, but it’s on the bottom of the ocean out there. Giant ledges. There’s so many different levels of fish and there’s different species at different levels,” Mershon said. “We have talked for years that we cannot believe the size of the fish that are still there after all the fishing pressure all these years.”

Heyman won’t deny that. He’s found big ones in recent surveys.

“Yes, this was once the bottom of all bottoms. It’s still a very important place,” he said. But that’s just it. Those monster groupers and other fish in the old photos were the brood stock that has seriously declined over the years. The few left are the stock’s best hope.

Mark Marhefka is a Shem Creek angler who has turned to custom fishing for retail and private seasonal-order customers — a move that was forced by the closures that essentially killed his wholesale business. But he favors the sanctuary.

Without it, he said, fish such as the Warsaw grouper and speckled hind are headed for the federal Endangered Species list — a move that would even more severely curtail the already restricted bottom fishing offshore. Existing sanctuaries such as current Marine Protected Areas are working, he said.

“I’m seeing more fish, easier and quicker to catch. We want those (big) fish to do their thing. Let them go make some babies. Let’s think long term and not short term,” Marhefka said.

The proposal is a compromise agreement among an unusual collaboration of anglers, scientists and environmentalists. The management council turned to them after an earlier proposal to dramatically extend protected areas was soundly opposed.

The committee has forwarded to the council a few alternatives for the sanctuary size. The recommended alternative is the middle size. It would put a 3.1 square mile chunk of the bottom off-limits, leaving room for bottom anglers to work the edges, but still protecting most of the nook.

Mershon wants the council to consider another alternative that also has been forwarded. It would expand a current Marine Protected Area to cover a similar, if not so dramatically productive, “elbow” of the scarp farther north off Murrells Inlet.

“I showed them it had everything in it they were looking for,” Mershon said. “All the fishermen already are used to not fishing there. What better place are you looking for?”

The alternatives goes to public hearing in Charleston on Monday. A preliminary council vote is expected in June in Key West, Fla.

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