On June 6, the state legislature passed S. 489, which was originally sponsored by Sen. Chip Campsen of Charleston and often referred to as the "CCA Comprehensive Finfish Initiative."
The bill changes the creel and size limits on red drum and flounder, the size limit on spotted seatrout, and it establishes for the first time creel and size limits on weakfish and black drum. It also places a moratorium on the harvest of two species of saltwater catfish.
"It is literally the biggest thing to happen to fisheries management in South Carolina since the implementation of the (recreational) saltwater license," said Scott Whitaker of Columbia, the executive director for CCA SC. "It's been seven years since we've had any change in a size or creel limit, and it's always been one fish a time. This is seven species at once. It's a departure from the traditional method South Carolina has been using to manage fisheries.
"The adoption of this landmark legislation is a strong statement that bodes well for the future of South Carolina's marine resources, as well as the growing awareness of conservation on the part of recreational saltwater fishermen across the state."
When the changes are implemented (around July 1, after Gov. Mark Sanford signs the bill into law), fishermen will be allowed to catch one additional red drum per day, but size limits will be stricter. The bill raises the daily creel limit from 2 fish to 3, but it narrows the 15- to 24-inch slot limit, lowering the upper limit to 23 inches.
The minimum size on flounder increases from 12 to 14 inches, and although the 20-fish daily creel limit remains in place, a limit of 40 fish per boat was adopted.
The bill also increases the size minimum on spotted seatrout (speckled trout) from 13 to 14 inches, and establishes a daily creel limit of 5 fish and a 14- to 27-inch slot limit on black drum, plus a 10-fish daily creel limit and 12-inch size minimum on weakfish (gray trout) and it prohibits the harvest of saltwater catfish.
Mel Ball, director of the Office of Fisheries Management for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said that the changes may actually benefit red drum stocks.
"It could put us in a little better position," he said. "There's a real value to that one inch, if you consider our management strategy, which is to get to get the spawning stock out there and leave them alone.
"I like to say it's like moving the finish line. Fish have to get to a certain point to escape harvest, and you've moved the finish line closer. From what we have in data, under the 15- to 24-inch slot, a fish is vulnerable for 18 months. By moving it (to 23 inches), we've reduced the vulnerability by a third, to 12 or 13 months."
Whitaker is concerned that fishermen understand that the increased creel limit for red drum (also called spot-tail bass) will not hurt the population.
"It goes from two to three, but with the slot limit being changed, that's a net change of zero, and it actually protects more spawning fish," he said. "We'll maintain our conservation benefit to the red drum."
Ball said the DNR is "basically happy" with the bill, because it allows biologists to protect fish even before they're endangered.
"We're doing some things proactively to look out for some of the species," he said. "There were no regulations in place on some of them, and we've tweaked some a little bit to try and get ahead a little, with what we're facing with coastal development, the possible degradation of habitat and the number of recreational anglers growing. We are trying to have in place things that are the best possible laws."
Ball said that a new regulations digest would contain the changes, which take effect immediately upon the governor's signature.
"I can't speak for the enforcement people, but our year starts on July 1, and we're putting it in the new regulations book. We knew this was in the works, and we've been waiting (to print the regulations book) to see what would get done," he said. "But it does become law upon the signature of the governor. I know we'll have to write some news releases and get the word out."