When the dust settles on this legislative session, a bill that was carefully researched and constructed by a large number of people interested in protecting the blue catfish in the Santee Cooper reservoirs will be laid on the governor’s desk in a watered-down version that few supporters will recognize. 

H 4543 was first introduced as a means to aid in the recovery of the ailing blue catfish population in the two reservoirs. With poor showings in gill-net assessments by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and complaints from guides about catches that were severely lower in both Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, public meetings were held that resulted in the original legislation.

The ensuing concern and public meetings that were held at the request of SCDNR resulted in the proposal of H4543, which set out to establish a 10-fish daily creel limit while maintaining the limit of one fish daily over 36 inches.

After much discussion, study and revision, including a foray into commercial exploitation of Santee catfish used to stock pay-to-fish ponds, H4543 has emerged with a 25-fish daily creel limit, including two fish per day longer than 32 inches.

The result has guide Spencer Edmonds of Eutawville, who attended the public meetings and was a proponent of stricter harvest regulations, in a state of disbelief.

“The legislature has just wasted everyone’s time,” said Edmonds. “Even back in the heyday of this lake, me and most of the other guides might catch 60 or 70 fish per boat fishing four anglers. This new law isn’t going to help at all.”

The regulations will take effect on April 1, 2015, if signed by Gov. Nikki Haley, who has expressed no opposition to the bill.

One aspect of concern to fisheries managers is a clause that will sunset the law after three years.

“I think the legislature is a step in the right direction,” said Ross Self, chief of fisheries for the SCDNR. “In talking with some of our legislators during the process, many felt moving from no limit to 10 per day was too draconian a move. We had originally proposed 20 per person per day, but the majority of the catfish guides on the lake asked that we go to 10, and it was their influence that got the bill started.”

“I would have liked to have seen a 5-year time frame to assess this current legislation,” said Self. “As it stands, (SCDNR) is required to do a study and report back to the general assembly before the first day of 2018. I’m not sure what our data would show in that short length of time. If the bill is not reauthorized by a joint resolution, it will be repealed on June 30, 2018.

“We need more than this,” said Edmonds. “You’ve got anglers catching all they can, guides fishing every day of the year, bowhunters killing the females off the nest and trotliners who are stringing out miles and miles of trotlines. It’s just too much pressure on the fishery. If they keep this up, my grandson will be hard-pressed to catch a single catfish out of these lakes.”