As a father, full-time charter boat captain, lifelong fisherman, biologist and outdoors enthusiasts this is a topic that I truly hold near and dear to my heart. I have been kicking around the idea of writing this article for a number of years but have been putting it off in hopes that things would come around and start getting better…well I am finally to the conclusion that the state of our local fisheries have hit an all-time low and it is becoming more clear that things wont be getting better anytime soon. From talking to other guides and captains from my area and other areas I know that multiple fisheries up and down the East Coast of the United States have been declining for years and I really have to wonder why? Am I saying that there are no fish left? No, there are still lots of fish in the sea and we still have many really good days on the water. What I am concerned about is where our fisheries are today compared to where they were 5, 10 and 20 years ago and more importantly where they will be 5, 10 and 20 years from now. Please note that my point of view comes from a lifelong career as a full time fishing guide but my views are neutral and come only from the desire to see healthy fisheries. Moreover, because I currently guide out of the Beaufort and Hilton Head, SC area many of my examples will come from these local fisheries.
The good old days
I can remember as a kid growing up in Daytona Beach, FL going out fishing with my dad off of the docks, piers, jetties and surf. We almost always caught good numbers of fish and quite frankly we had little clue as to what we were doing. Years later as a deckhand on offshore charter boats in the Florida Keys we always caught fish and lots of them but the Keys are a different animal. From the Keys I ended up on the lower coast of South Carolina and though I have spent quite a bit of time on the offshore waters I have now become rather content to stay on the inshore and backwaters. When I relocated up here 10 years ago the fishing was off the chain! We had one of the best inshore cobia fisheries on the East Coast plus it was quite common to have days catching 30+ reds, 50+ specks, flounder, tarpon, bull reds plus blues and mackerel until your arms hurt. Am I gonna say that everyday was an easy day or that we had huge days on every trip?…NO. But depending on the time of year and conditions many days were like that. This lasted for the first 5 years whereas over the past 5 years we have seen a steady decline to the point where days that were once considered a good day of fishing are now a great day of fishing. So what’s causing this decline and where do we go from here?
This topic should really be titled “over-killing” because that is the real root of the problem. Why do you think that there are still so many bonefish left in the world? Well if people could eat them I can guarantee you that this would not be the case. The bottom line is that saltwater fish are a public resource and people have absolutely no restraint. If a fish is even semi-edible or has a commercial value that fish will be hunted and killed until it’s populations are decimated. This fishing practice was semi-viable years ago when there were a lot less people out fishing and technology was not where it is today but in todays arena the fish don’t stand a chance. We saw this first hand with our inshore Cobia fishery. A fishery that was once one of the best on the East Coast we had 30-70 pound Cobia’s swimming into our inshore waters (some as far as 15+ miles inland) but due to over-harvesting this fishery has completely collapsed. Why? First off these fish came here in large numbers for about 2 months out of the year to spawn…those big 70 pounders were spawning females laden with eggs. Secondly, cobia are considered to be rather good table fare. Third, cobia fever! Just before cobia season thats all anyone talked about; SCDNR publicized the fishery, magazines publicized the fishery, guides (including myself) publicized the fishery, all of the local restaurants publicized the fishery and multiple kill tournaments were organized. Everyone locally and beyond went out and systematically killed off all of the breeding stock only to cut out the meat and throw the unfertilized eggs back into the drink. In my own defense and the defense of a hand full of other captains and anglers we did see the writing on the wall well before the fishery took a nose dive, we changed our ways and tried to get others to do the same but with a freight train like that there was no stopping it! Efforts are currently being made to bring the fishery back but it will likely take a very long time if it is even possible due to the loss of the genetic pool that once swam into our waters. Sadly enough, we are currently experiencing similar trends in many of our other fisheries and people refuse to even recognize that we are having problems.
Fishing popularity – commercialization, publicity, and tournaments
Fishing is big business; from commercial fishing to charter fishing, bait and tackle sales, boat sales, tournaments, TV shows to tourism and state taxes fishing generates dollars. Hell, I have made a living for the past 15 years solely from taking people out on fishing trips. For the wheels to keep turning the sport of fishing needs to be publicized (think back to the cobia example). The sport needs to be popular for people to go out an buy that fancy new flats boat or to outfit it with 10 rod and reel combos plus lots of electronics and gadgets. In another effort to commercialize the sport fishing industry we have come up with all sorts of tournaments which bring in lots of spectators and big dollars. I have fished sailfish tournaments where over a half million dollars was on the line (there are even bigger tournaments than that) and that was just for the prize money; what about all of the other sales that went into that tournament such as fuel, tackle, hotel rooms, meals…the list could go on and on for just that one tournament. You name it and fishing both commercially and recreationally drives revenue and when you place a dollar sign on the back of some poor fish you better believe that people are going to exploit the resource. And with the popularity of fishing currently at an all time high coupled with the huge increase in new people getting into the sport (especially baby boomers retiring and looking to spend more time on the water) it makes it tough for any fishery to sustain the pressure.
The mentality of fisherman
By taking so many different people out fishing over the years I have gained a lot of insight into the mentality of fisherman. I have fished with just about every different type of person that you could imagine from wealthy to less than middle class, experienced to novice, sportsman to meat fisherman, young to old, men, woman, white, black, asian and everyone in between. I have worked on commercial boats, sport boats, private boats, fishing resorts, inshore and offshore boats…my point is that I have fished with a lot of different people from very diverse backgrounds. The one thing that at least 90 plus percent of all fisherman that I have fished with all share in common is bottom line GREED and this is one thing that is very difficult to change. At least 30% of the people that contact me to go fishing are looking to kill as many fish as they can on a given fishing trip and the only thing that would keep them from killing everything is State and Federal fishing catch limits (by the way I only allow my clients to take a few fish for dinner and then we practice catch and release). I have gotten to the point where I turn down quite a number of fishing charters just because I don’t want to deal with this kill mentality even though I know that they will surely call another guide who will gladly take them out to put fish in the box. What really bothers me is the fact that even beyond the charter boats there are so many more recreational anglers who head out with this same mentality and the killing goes on all but unchecked. Unfortunately, most people have no clue or don’t care about how badly we are treating our fisheries. I was in the bait shop few years back and an old timer was kicked back in a rocking chair and chimed in while I was talking with the shop owner. He said “I remember when we used to go out fishing for specks and we didn’t come back until we had us a duffel bag full of fish”…my blood was boiling at this point but after about a 20 seconds pause he looked up to the ceiling and said “well I sure don’t understand why we don’t see fishing like that any more” and at that moment it clicked with me that these people really just don’t get the fact that you really can overfish a fishery. Along the same lines I had a guy call me to set up a fishing charter and when I informed him that I primarily practice catch and release he stated that “I usually practice catch and release on my local lakes but if I come down to the coast I want to take as many fish as I can to put in the freezer”. I was left near speechless and needless to say I did refuse the business. Once again we have a public resource that is being exploited by a huge number of people and at some point we are going to hit the tipping point.
Commercial vs recreational fishing
As I stated earlier I am unbiased and my main concern is and always has been to have healthy fisheries so for me it really doesn’t matter who is taking all of the fish; the bottom line is that the fish are disappearing. There has always been a long standing struggle between commercial and recreational fisherman and the animosity will surly continue for years to come. Yes I have worked on commercial boats so I do know that side of the business but I am for all intensive purposes a recreational fisherman. That being said, short of commercial drag shrimpers (due to their by-catch) and gill netters I will tell you that most commercial fisherman are not causing the problems within our fisheries. Commercial fishing is very difficult and labor intensive work, most commercial fisherman are ethical and follow the rules and commercial fisherman are heavily regulated on both the state and federal level. Moreover, most commercial fisherman are professionals and conduct their business in such a way that does not upset the natural balance. Yes there are bad commercial fisherman and all commercial fisherman are greedy but due to fact that they have to sell, thus report their catches and surely don’t want to lose their licenses they tend to stay on the right side of the law. Moreover, it always gets me that on one hand people vilify commercial fisherman and then that same evening go out to a nice restaurant for a fish dinner…go figure! If you look at recreational fisherman our fishing practices are also regulated via gear restrictions, size limits and bag limits but the numbers of fish being taken go generally unreported. Minor efforts are made to see what recreation anglers are harvesting through boat ramp surveys, charter fishing logs and phone census reports but nobody really has a clue about the number of fish that recreational anglers are really harvesting and where this has the biggest impact is within smaller localized fisheries. Moreover, because recreational anglers are not professional in what they do many of them do more damage than what could ever be reported. Some examples would include: the amount of fishing gear (hooks and line) that is discarded in the waterways, entangled cast nets that are left to keep killing, damage to the grasses and shell beds due to props. Beyond that most recreational anglers have no clue of how to handle fish that are to be released; I don’t allow my client to handle fish that are to be released simply because they do so much damage to the fish simply trying to get the hooks out that the fish will die anyhow. On the other hand, recreational fisherman are generally on the forefront of fish conservation and I do believe that many of us are willing to make changes if it will help improve the fisheries. The bottom line is this: we all have a hand in this and for our fisheries to come back it will require both commercial and recreational fisherman to make substantial changes.
Advances in technology and the internet
Thirty years ago there was no such thing as a 10 inch screen on the top of a boat console that could tell you exactly where you were in real time. There was no magic machine that could look deep into the bottom and tell you exactly what the structure looked like and also if there were a bunch of fish down there. We didn’t have 40 foot center console boats that could run at 50 MPH in a 3-4 foot sea or skinny water flats boats with a 100 mile range that could float in 5 inches of water. We didn’t have $400 sunglasses or reels with super slick drags and hair like fishing line and we surely didn’t have the damn internet! The advances in fishing technology has exploded over the past few decades and it has allowed even novice fisherman the ability to have a good shot at being able to catch fish and for those of us who were already pretty good at catching fish without technology we can go out and wreak havoc. We can run further, go faster, stay out longer and find areas that only a few years ago were untouched. And then came the internet! It used to be that most fisherman kept their mouth shut about their favorite fishing holes and a secret spot was just that…a secret spot, but with the internet there is no such thing as secret spots anymore. With a multitude of online fishing websites, weather websites, articles, you tube videos, social media, daily fishing reports, online forums and chat rooms you can sit at your desk at work and know exactly when and where fish are being caught in real time. And once it hits the net you better believe that everybody with a fishing rod will be heading out as soon as they can to get into the action. It has gotten to the point that the fish really don’t have a chance, they get beat on day in and day out with very few places left to seek refuge.
Environmental and economical influences
Throughout this article I have placed most of the blame of our shrinking fisheries on us as fisherman but there have been a number of uncontrollable influences as well. For starters it has been pretty well proven that global warming is real though some politicians seem to think that it some sort of a huge hoax cooked up by scientists. I am outdoors most everyday and I really can’t tell you exactly how/why things have been changing or what impacts they have had on our fisheries but every year I do notice that we are trending towards more windy days, more violent storms and consistently higher water temperatures. As for the impacts of global warming the jury is still out in regards to how it is impacting many local fisheries but I would imagine that where we will begin the see the impacts first is in the upper extremes of North America, coral reef areas and also in highly migratory fish. As far as localized weather impacts that have recently hurt our fisheries the freeze of 2010 had the biggest impact. This freeze killed many fish such as snook in the South Florida region and also did a good number on our speckled trout and redfish populations here in South Carolina. I do give the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission a lot of credit for the way that they handled their fish kills however. Within weeks of the freeze they closed down the snook fishery and only recently opened it back up…that was a nice proactive move on their part! Another issue that doesn’t really come to mind for many people when looking at fisheries management is economical influences and it is likely because it is extremely complicated. A quick example would be increase in fuel prices that we saw a few years back. I am sure that this alone had a multitude of affects on our fisheries but one of the main things that it did was cause guys to downsize their big gas guzzling offshore boats (offshore fishing closures influenced this as well) and buy more economical inshore and backwater boats. These guys are still going out fishing, they are still going out harvesting as much as they possibly can so it basically put a lot more pressure on the near and inshore fisheries.
If there is a way to screw up a fishery the government will surely find a way to do it. I am almost convinced that they do it on purpose. Do we need government controls on our fisheries? Absolutely, without government controls people would go out and kill everything as quickly as possible but the government needs to do a much better job to protect our resources! We had a situation a few years back where NOAA closed down red snapper, bee liners and dramatically cut the sea bass limits in federal waters for the North Atlantic Fisheries Region. Believe me I am all for tighter restrictions when it comes to fishing but this decision was 100% political and had nothing to do with sound fisheries management practices. Moreover, of all of the fisheries that needed to be shut down these would have been last on the list as they were all very healthy at the time. In fact, we have gotten to the point now with red snapper that it is difficult to catch anything else because they have taken over! What really concerns me though is the trickle down effect that these policies made on other state fisheries. All of this took place at around the same time as the increase in gas prices which only compounded the fact that nobody was going to spend $4.00 per gallon to run out 40 miles just to release most of the fish. With so many guys switching from offshore to inshore fishing (and these are guys that know how to fish and generally go out to kill) with these new regulation we have seen dramatic decreases in the numbers of our inshore fish populations. As far as our state SCDNR fisheries managers; they have made absolutely no changes in bag or catch limits even though the fisheries are steadily declining and it doesn’t look as though there will be changes coming anytime soon. I guess that they are planning to allow the rest of our fisheries dwindle down to nothing just like the cobia before they decide to take action!
Lack of enforcement and poaching
Is there poaching going on out there? Yes! This especially holds true for the recreational anglers because they are not required to report their catches as a commercial fisherman would when he takes his fish to market. Is their a black market for fish? Yes! Many local restaurants will buy fish from people who don’t have a commercial fishing license, this was hugely prevalent back in the days when we had lots of cobia which helped to deplete that fishery and it still goes on today. The problem with poaching is that it is so hard for the wildlife officers to catch a poacher unless they get the guys red handed with illegal fish in hand and a lot of these guys have secret compartments on their boats or make multiple runs in a single day and once those fish leave the boat it is nearly impossible track when or where they were caught. Moreover, these poor wildlife officers are stretched so thin. Between policing hunters, boaters and fisherman they only have time to check a small fraction of the boats out fishing. In the past 5 years I can count on one hand how many times I have been checked by a local wildlife officer and I do understand that they know that I am a charter boat captain who is on the up and up but this goes for everyone out here. Nobody gets checked and everybody knows it so we are basically left to follow the rules on the honor system…with at least 90% of all fisherman being greedy you know that a lot of illegal fish are making their way to some good old boys freezer.
What can we do to be better
Well I don’t think that we can rely on the good nature of our fellow anglers to all of the sudden decide to change their ways and do the right thing so our only option is to hope that the state government will make some meaningful changes before it is too late. In our case I don’t know that it will be possible because as far as I know the SCDNR does not have the power to make changes in fisheries limits…What? You got it, even if there were 2 redfish left in all of South Carolina our own Department of Natural Resources would not have the power to change the limits and protect those fish. For fisheries limits to be changed it needs to go through the state legislature and we all know how politics work. If however, we were able to make some meaningful changes these would be my suggestions and I know that a lot of people out there would go out of their minds because someone suggests that we actually make changes the don’t allow them the possibility to stuff their freezer full of filets. But if we don’t get on board and start making better policies there won’t be any fish to stuff in the freezer! In my opinion, fisheries management is very easy though fisheries managers seem to make it overly complicated. We have been fishing for and studying these fish for decades so we ample information to protect them. First off, during the months that fish are spawning shut the fishery down, other states have done this and it has paid big dividends. Next tighten the bag limits at least until the fisheries recover and then possibly look at loosening them up some. Wow that wasn’t so complicated was it. Below would be my personal suggestion for SC saltwater bag limits. Moreover, each fishery would be fully closed during its respective spawn except for redfish because all of the breeding class redfish are over the size limit anyhow.
Redfish1 per person per day
Black Drum 2 per person per day
Speckled Trout 4 per person per day
Flounder 2 per person per day
Sheepshead 5 per person per day
Cobia Full Closure
Outside of these regulations other fisheries should be looked at as well but at this point these are the fisheries that are in the most trouble.
In conclusion, I know that this is a long article and I thank you for reading. I also know that this only scratches the surface as to the complexity of managing our resources for long term sustainability but I surely hope that we don’t lose the precious fisheries that we have left. One thing that has been proven time and time again is that you give fish a chance to rebound they generally do so rather quickly. A few examples would include the Northeastern striped bass fishery, the South Florida snook fishery and the entire east coast grouper fishery. When your kids come to you one day and ask you what happened to all of the fish do you really want to respond with “well I’m sorry kiddo but we ate em all”.