In the mid-to-late 1980s, the stocks of red drum in many states around the Southeast had been depleted to the point of near-collapse, thanks to years of indiscriminate netting and liberal recreational limits.
Most states gave game fish status to red drum and made commercial harvest of them – including with the use of nets. Although commercial harvest is still legal in North Carolina, recreational limits were lowered in all Southeastern states to conservative levels.
For several years after the turn of the century, red drum numbers have rebounded nicely and anglers able to enjoy a vibrant fishery of the popular, hard-fighting species in South Carolina’s estuary waters and across the Southeast.
All the while, there has been a movement of humans to most all coastal areas in the Southeast. Simply put, moving to the coast and living the beach lifestyle has become the ‘in’ thing to do the last few decades.
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With a burgeoning coastal population has come a sharp increase in the number of fishermen, and in turn more fishing pressure, especially on easily accessible estuary species such as red drum, along with spotted seatrout, flounder and black drum.
Red drum, also known in South Carolina as spottails or redfish, are likely the most highly sought after fish that inhabits estuaries and near-shore waters in not only South Carolina, but throughout the Southeast.
Despite conservative measures to help stabilize and boost the populations of red drum, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is looking into data that isn’t very encouraging regarding the stock of the species in the Southeast.
At the ASMFC’s May meeting in Alexandria, Va., the council was presented with an assessment of red drum in the Northern (North Carolina and states further north) and Southern (South Carolina and those further south) stocks.
“The initial results from (the stock assessment) are basically that the stock is not in as good a shape as we had hoped,” said Mel Bell of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Marine Resources Division. “It could be that the stock is overfished and overfishing is occurring.”
The council will take another look at red drum stocks during its fall meeting in October.
“The council pushed (the red drum issue) back to the science folks and (told them), ‘Get back to us at the next meeting in the fall,’” said Bell. “If nothing else changes and (red drum are) overfished and overfishing is occurring, then something is going to have to change in the management plan.”
If the ASMFC eventually decides to implement new management measures – a lower bag limit is among the possibilities – all 15 states represented in the council, including South and North Carolina, would have to abide by the new changes, though few red drum are found north of Chesapeake Bay.
What is bothersome to Bell is that the majority of red drum are released, as all states have a slot limit to abide by. In South Carolina, the slot limit is 15-23 inches with a daily bag limit of three fish per angler.
“Over 80 percent of the fish caught are released live and in the charter sector some years they are releasing 90 percent (of the fish caught in South Carolina waters),” said Bell.
Yet, DNR studies do not reflect a positive pattern in the agency’s annual stock data for red drum.
“Our data indicates we really haven’t had a real strong year class since 2009,” said Bell. “We’re seeing positive numbers of one-year-olds (10- to 12-inch fish) but they’re not making it to two-year-olds. You’d expect to start seeing some strong year classes but we’re not seeing the numbers we’d like to see. That suggests we’re not seeing good recruitment into the fishery. That could be some environmental things but it could be from fishing pressure.”
Bell pointed out that approximately 478,000 people have some sort of saltwater fishing license for South Carolina waters.
“If everybody that had a license of some type that allows them to fish here, there would be that many people out there on the water,” said Bell. “That's a lot of people. There’s just a heckuva lot more fishermen now than there were 20-30 years ago.”
Samworth Boat Ramp
Public access to the boat landing at Samworth Wildlife Management Area on the Pee Dee River between Conway and Georgetown is closed temporarily for construction of a new boat ramp.
The state Department of Natural Resources Office of Engineering, which is overseeing the construction project, estimates work on the new ramp will be completed by Aug. 1, weather permitting.
For help locating an alternate landing, boaters can consult the list of boat ramps on the DNR website. Visit www.dnr.sc.gov and click on the “Boat Ramps” link on the left side of the page.