New federal restrictions mean a popular fishing area off the Georgetown coast will soon close to bottom fishing year-round.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council said three new Spawning Special Management Zones will take effect after July 31. The zones are meant to protect spawning Snapper-Grouper Fishery populations off the Atlantic coast. Many of the 53 affected species are slow growing and mature later than other types of fish, so the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said rebuilding efforts will take years before full recovery.
The three locations — part of the ledge known as the “Georgetown Hole” or “Devil’s Hole” off Georgetown and two artificial reefs Area 51 and Area 53 off Charleston — will still be open to troll fishing (lines partway in the water behind a boat) for other species such as mackerel or dolphinfish. Fishing boats will allow be allowed to transit the area with snapper-grouper catches made elsewhere.
“The purpose of this was to provide a mechanism to help these species,” South Carolina Office of Fisheries Management Director Mel Bell said. “To allow them some extra advantage in rebuilding or maintaining healthy populations. These ‘spawning zones’ are basically fish factories.”
The move has angered some Georgetown charter tour operators. Max McMillan of Critter Gitter Fishing said he supports sustainable fishing, but does not understand why even catch-and-release would be banned in popular areas.
“If we’re not keeping the fish, at least the customers can have a good time catching them,” he said. “We’ve got customers from all over the United States and Canada who came here just to catch fish. Most of the time, they don’t even care whether they can keep them.
The new zones are relatively small (less than 10 square miles combined), but they are favorites among charter tours because fish congregate among the rock ledges and manmade reefs around 70-100 feet deep. Charter owners are also frustrated with recent federal efforts to establish 700 square miles marine protection areas further offshore where bottom fishing is already not allowed. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council also banned recreational fishing for cobia this year.
Georgetown Hole’s new special management zones will be in place for at least 10 years. There is no expiration date for the two man-made reefs off Charleston.
McMillan is worried that many tourists could go elsewhere. “It’s going to hurt us. It’s going to slow us down big time,” he said. “It’s going to hurt the economy from Charleston all the way up to Myrtle Beach and above.”
Bell said the two affected artificial reefs were created by the state Department of Natural Resources specifically for the purpose of becoming protected spawn areas. He noted there are 43 other artificial reefs off the South Carolina coast that are not affected by the new restrictions.
“These are focused specifically on trying to find the spots where fish are known to spawn and are likely to spawn,” he said.