South Carolina

Hilton Head fighting off sharks, or at least the perception

Chip Michalove snags a juvenile great white shark Dec. 11 in Port Royal Sound off Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.Courtesy of Chip Michalove.
Chip Michalove snags a juvenile great white shark Dec. 11 in Port Royal Sound off Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.Courtesy of Chip Michalove.

Hilton Head Island is considering new rules to limit fishing on its beaches during the busy tourist season amid concerns that fishing could attract sharks to the shallows.

The idea was first floated last fall at a forum with Town Council members, where residents raised concerns over tents, canopies and beach rules.

In response, the council's administrative committee drafted a proposed rule to prohibit fishing on all of the island's beaches from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from the Friday before Memorial Day to Labor Day.

But council members were hesitant to endorse the new rule Tuesday night after Mayor David Bennett, councilman Lee Edwards and councilman Marc Grant spoke out against the idea.

"We're an island known for our natural beauty, for an outdoor life and recreation," Bennett said. "To come up with a rule that universally negates fishing from our beaches for a period of time that encompasses most of the tourists that come here, I'm not sure that's sending the right message."

Instead, Edwards suggested the town consider prohibiting fishing during the same time period, but only on the busiest sections of the island's beaches. Examples could include the areas around Sea Pines Beach Club, from Alder Lane to Coligny, or at the Marriott and Omni hotels in Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, he said.

But councilmen John McCann and Bill Harkins, who crafted the proposal, worried that carving out exclusions would make enforcement difficult.

They also contend the town is obligated to address residents' concerns.

More than a half-dozen shark bites across the Carolinas made headlines last summer, including one on Hunting Island. A 9-year-old girl also was bitten on the hand by a shark in October on Hilton Head.

"It's a lot of perception ... that fishing on the beach draws in sharks," McCann said. "If you don't do something about people's perception about sharks being out there, then sharks are going to bite you in a different way."

But Edwards and Grant don't believe those fears are founded on anything other than a misunderstanding about sharks.

"If people are worried fishing attracts shark to the beach, I would suggest there are already sharks in the water, they're just not biting people," Edwards said.

The entire South Carolina coast averages fewer than four shark bites per year over the past decade, according to http://sharkattackdata.com. Although Port Royal Sound is a haven for a sharks and is a focus of the global shark research group OCEARCH, scientists studying the area regularly note that shark encounters are very rare compared with the millions of beachgoers who dive in each year.

"Unless you can show me some data that suggests me throwing a shrimp out into the ocean is going to hurt a child because a shark is going to come bite it," Grant said, "then I'll reconsider, but I'm not out there hunting sharks."

Taking away popular fishing holes at Mitchelville and Fish Haul beaches would be "very sad" and hurt island tourism, Grant added.

The council's Public Facilities Committee will consider revisions to the proposal at its meeting Jan. 25.

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