Can tighter limits bring back stripers?
By Bo Peterson
COLUMBIA — Fewer fish, bigger fish and a “keeper” season that closes during the summer — the rules might change soon for catching stripers, the trophy bass that has all but disappeared from the Marion-Moultrie lakes.
Those recommendations were made in early January by a fishing-interests stakeholders committee to the S.C. House agricultural committee. The legislature must approve any change in rules. The recommendations are roundly expected to be controversial — frustration over the decline of the fish and what’s being done about it has already reached a boiling point.
In the past seven years catches of the striped bass, or rockfish, have fallen off drastically from the two huge Low-country impoundments known as the Santee Cooper lakes, despite the state stocking 2 million fingerlings per year. S.C. Natural Resources’ sample count fell from more than 500 in 2000 to 50 in 2007.
The huge bass is a signature catch in the state. It helped turn the counties around the lakes into a vacation destination worth an estimated $300 million per year, according to tourism officials. It was named the state fish for its Lowcountry success.
The catch is so depleted now it’s driving fishing guides out of the striper business. Most guides also began fishing for catfish when the striper stock began falling, said Allan Weiss, of Blacks Fish Camp, a committee member. In the past five years, the number working from his camp dropped from 35 to 9. And those nine are catfishing.
A long list of possible reasons for the decline ranges from the drought to competition from other species eating hatchlings and hatchling food. Those concerned want to see more done to protect the stock. But they don’t agree on what to do. The catch and keeper size are already restricted, and some fishermen say further restrictions won’t make much difference.
As frustration grew that hadn’t done more about the problem, Natural Resources in the fall formed the stakeholders committee — made up of sometimes competing interests of recreational and guide fishing representatives, along with tourism and Santee Cooper officials and others.
The draft law is the result of three months of back and forth that one committee member described as everybody butting heads. The committee agreed to put off discussion of introducing hybrids and other recommendations, to get the tougher restrictions in place quicker.
The increased size limit would not only give stripers time to reach spawning age, but to actively spawn before the fish can be kept, said John Dean, University of South Carolina marine science fellow and committee member.
The bill must work through committee and House votes and go the S.C. Senate by March if it’s going to have a chance of passing this session, Rep. David Umphlett, R-Moncks Corner, told the stakeholders committee.