The President's speech is called the "State of the Union" address. Here, he cites statistics on, among other things, the Iraq War, Social Security funding and a timeline for economic growth.
Locally, the governor's oration is titled the "State of the State." During late January, Governor Mark Sanford pontificated about small-business tax incentives, education reform and projected tax revenues.
Because politicians like to be positive and believe their policies are guiding the ship of state in the right direction, their speeches often carry an overwhelming aura of good times ahead, no matter how in-the-toilet or flush-with-money the country or state might be.
However, no State of the Union or State of State exists for natural resources. You might catch a brief comment in the president's speech about funding for the Department of the Interior or some major environmental policy. The governor could mention how many acres have been protected during his watch and comment on the efforts of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as stewards of the state's natural resources. Any of the statements are usually broad and mean little to sportsmen at the local level.
Hoping to fill that gap in public policy, South Carolina Sportsman set out to get an update on saltwater fishing. Getting a read on how the state's major inshore saltwater species are doing translates directly to how well your fishing could be during the upcoming year.
Any state-of-the-state speech about inshore fisheries management could begin and end with this statement" "There's a good chance you won't have any kids if your parents don't."
Dr. Charlie Wenner, a DNR marine biologist at Fort Johnson in Charleston, often uses this phrase when describing fisheries management. It's a to-the-point comment that describes fisheries management (and wildlife management, for that matter). It basically means you must ensure enough individuals survive from one year to the next to spawn or reproduce.
For fisheries management to be successful, fisheries biologists must consider several factors. Weather and environmental conditions alone determine much about fish populations. A severe freeze could result in a major winter kill of fish. Degrading water quality from development could reduce the amount of spawning and nursery habitat within a particular water body, thus diminishing the output of the system.
Mother Nature is crafty and selfless in her own right, but fisheries biologists have to account for improving fishing equipment, better access, and varying numbers of anglers when evaluating fish populations and recommending particular fishing regulations.
While the objective is straightforward, the process can be tricky. To combat the situation, fisheries biologists use a variety of surveys to obtain data. These are grouped into two categories: fishery-dependent and fishery-independent surveys.
Fishery-dependent surveys measure fishing success and the effort required to catch fish. These are often called creel surveys. Researchers interview anglers on the water and record variables such as hours fishing and the number, size and type of any fish kept or released. There are other methods, such as mail surveys or recording data from various fishing tournaments, that seek similar information.
Fishery-independent surveys are surveys that don't rely upon fishing, recreational or commercial, as the primary means of data gathering. While a survey might involve the use of a hook and line or commercial-fishing gear, the process is highly structured and consists of some level of randomization in the gathering of data.
A perfect example of a fishery-independent survey is the trammel-net survey conducted by Dr. Wenner's shop. Biologists set trammel nets, which are modified gill nets used by commercial fishermen, at random shallow-water locations along the coast throughout the year. Some of the data they record are the sizes, numbers and species of captured fish. Then they tag and release the captured fish.
Because of the survey's design, scientists can determine such measures as the strength of a particular year's spawn and the size and age structure of a particular species' population.
By taking into account information from fishery-dependent and fishery-independent surveys, biologists can assess fish populations and make recommendations for fishing regulations.
Here's an overview of the most current information for South Carolina's four top inshore saltwater species.
Arguably the most popular inshore saltwater fish species in the state, redfish, also known as spot-tail bass, red drum or channel bass, support the most data.
It's similar to the situation in the waterfowl world where biologists know the most about mallard populations, the most widespread and popular species in the marsh.
"Red drum are holding their own," Wenner said. "This comes despite the fact that the number of saltwater anglers have increased in the state and better gear equals more fish caught. There's a lot more and better hooks in the water."
The number of fishing trips per year has increased from approximately 200,000 in the early 1980s to around 800,000 trips in recent years.
"Despite the additional pressures put on red drum populations in the state," Wenner said, "fortunately the number of fisherman practicing catch and release has increased as well. But this does come at some cost since you have some mortality associated with catch-and-release fishing. Nonetheless, it's still better than the mortality associated with an ice chest, which is 100 percent."
Data indicates that since 1981 the number of redfish released by anglers has been on an upward trend. Less than 5 percent of fish were released in 1981, while the number of fish released now appears to have stabilized around 70 percent. Some of this can be attributed to more conservative regulations, but a few would argue there's been a change in mindset with many anglers becoming more conservation minded.
Wenner said the mortality associated with catch-and-release could be reduced if more anglers switched to circle hooks.
"We conducted a study last year that demonstrated the benefits of using circle hooks," he said. "Currently, about 50 percent of the angling population uses standard "J" hooks, with about a third claiming they used circle hooks. Roughly 70 percent of anglers reported using natural baits, which is important since fish are more likely to swallow the real thing.
"We found that non-offset circle hooks hooked a fish in the corner of the mouth or jaw 90 percent of the time. For J-hooks, it was around 60 percent. After holding hooked fish for 48 hours, we recorded mortality by hook type.
"Only one fish caught on a non-offset circle hook died,
"Three times more fish died when captured by J-hooks and five times more died when caught on offset circle hooks.
"Anything you can do to reduce mortality on fish populations results in a savings. When you run the numbers, if every angler used a non-offset circle hook nearly 200,000 red drum would be 'saved.' "
The current perception is S.C. waters teem with redfish. Wenner won't disagree there are more fish, but changes are coming.
"Redfish spawns vary annually," Wenner said. "There were good spawns in 1989 and 1990 and average spawns through the early 1990s. The last half of the 1990s was several years of below-average spawns, which resulted in more restrictive regulations.
"The spawns from 2000 to 2002 were above average, but since then we have had three consecutive years of average to below-average spawns. The strength of the 2006 spawn won't be known until later in 2007 when the number of 1-year-old fish are measured.
"There is a delay from the time a red drum is spawned before it is old enough to be caught on a hook.
"Less than 6 percent of the redfish caught are below 14 inches, which is a fish about 1 year old. Most of the catch is comprised of fish that are 2 years old and older.
"So the current abundance of fish is based on the good spawns from 2000 to 2002. However, red drum begin leaving the creeks for the spawning population in the ocean at 3-years old, with some waiting until they're 5-years old. The last red drum from these good spawns will be leaving soon, and with below-averages spawns from 2003-2005, fishing success will likely decrease.
"Unfortunately, because of the perceived abundance, some folks are proposing more liberal regulations at a time when we're actually headed towards lower populations."
Wenner said current regulations of two-reds per angler between 15 and 24 inches have been working. Studies conducted in offshore waters have shown an increase in the numbers of younger fish joining the offshore spawning population.
"Red drum are long-lived fish," Wenner said. "Regulations are designed to move at least 30 percent of a spawn to the offshore adult population because these fish were hammered for so long.
"Right now, there are very few old fish in the offshore population. We've seen increases in the numbers of fish joining the offshore population but we would prefer to see a more even distribution across all of the adult age classes. This would ensure a stable spawning population."
Anyone who fished for spotted seatrout in the state back in 2002 and 2003 can remember the poor fishing. The terrible speckled trout fishing resulted from the devastating winter kill that occurred in December 2001 and January 2002 when water temperatures stayed below 45 degrees for several weeks.
"The freeze in late 2001 and early 2002 was catastrophic for trout," Wenner said. "We estimated that the freeze reduced the population by 75 percent. Fortunately, we had a fairly good population going into the freeze, which helped the population rebound faster."
And rebound it has.
As a result of several mild winters in a row, spotted seatrout populations are doing well across their entire range. Times are good for trout fishermen.
"Seatrout populations are doing very well right now," Wenner said. "We are seeing more fish in our trammel-net sets and an increased number of 2- and 3-pound fish, which indicates we have had some good years for trout. The number of fish that are coming into inshore tournaments that we monitor is up as well."
Although they're related to redfish, spotted seatrout have a much different spawning strategy. Redfish are long-lived fish that rely upon one spawn per season. The idea is if a spawn isn't great, it's no big deal because the fish hopefully will pull off a successful one in a subsequent year.
Spotted seatrout, on the other hand, are termed "batch" spawners. They spawn at a younger age than redfish and spawn several times during a season, from April to September, hoping one of these will hit. They don't live as long as redfish.
"Trout begin spawning at age 1, but the contribution from these fish is small," Wenner said. "Age 1 fish spawn later in the season than older trout, which reduces the number of times they can spawn in a season, and due to their smaller ovaries their batches are smaller.
"Age 2 fish, which are about 14-inches long, and older fish spawn earlier in the season, more frequently and produce much larger batches. Their contribution is exponentially larger than age 1 fish."
Wenner said the exceptional trout populations that anglers are experiencing now are tied directly to the absence of winter kills.
"Old timers would say the trout population was linked with the number of shrimp in the creeks," Wenner said. "However, when there were lots of shrimp, there were lots of trout because the lethal water temperatures for both species are roughly the same. Cold winters affected each species the same way."
While S.C. anglers are enjoying high trout populations right now, Wenner said they don't catch nearly the number of 6- and 7-pound trout as in other states to the south because of the occasional winter kills and higher mortality from dolphins.
"Winter kills happen just enough to not allow a lot of trout to get real old in our waters," Wenner said. "An increase in the minimum size by only 1 inch would help. It would allow more trout to be in the older age classes so when a winter kill did occur, more older fish would survive and be able to grow older and larger.
"After all, if you lose 75 percent of 1,000 fish, that's still more fish surviving than if you lost 75 percent of only 100 fish."
Dolphin mortality can hurt trout as well.
Each dolphin needs about 15 pounds of fish per day just for maintenance during the winter. The only fish inside the creeks during winter are redfish, trouts and striped mullets, with the mullets being the hardest for dolphins to capture.
This leaves only redfish and trout to share that burden, which can be high in some years.
Information about flounder populations is limited. A large part of this is due to the lack of information from the gig fishery.
"At this time, it hard to comment on the population status of flounder because we don't know about the impact of the gig fishery," Wenner said. "We have no estimate of how many fish are harvested by this aspect of the fishery. We are proposing some surveys in an attempt to measure it. Work in North Carolina indicated that greater than 50 percent of the flounder harvest was attributed to gigs."
Without a complete measure of harvest, it's difficult for biologists to construct a clear picture of a population. Recent information from trammel-net sets indicated the number of flounder is a little bit below average.
"The relationship between the number of spawning flounder in the population and recruitment is poorly understood," Wenner said. "However, we know that no spawners equals no recruits.
"The current regulations have a 12-inch minimum-size limit. This size is below the point when most flounder spawn. If you kill them before they spawn, they're not going to spawn.
"Some hook-and-line anglers release a fish caught near the minimum size, which helps, however, giggers aren't able to do this.
"In the absence of information, fishing regulations should be such that the minimum size is greater than the size at which a fish species spawns. Currently, this is not the case for flounder."
Sheepshead are in a similar situation as flounder.
Fisheries biologists don't have all the information they need to adequately manage the species but an understanding of the life history of the fish does provide much guidance. Because of where trammel nets are set, they don't provide an adequate method to evaluate sheepsheads. The same can be said for flounders.
"Sheepsheads are a long-lived species," Wenner said. "They don't live as long as red drum, but older than 20 years is not uncommon.
"They don't mature until they are around 12-inches long. This is a sheepshead that is in the neighborhood of 3- to 4-years old. For management to be successful, you would like the fish to be able to spawn at least once before it is harvested."
Herein lies the problem.
The average annual harvest of sheepshead is 100,000 fish according to SCDNR surveys. It fluctuates, sometimes widely, and biologists can't attribute the pattern to any particular factor. The number of sheepshead released has increased from 0 percent to about 30 percent in recent years.
The long-term average size of sheepshead landed in South Carolina is 14 inches, but this number has declined greatly in recent years.
"The majority of the sheepshead catch is comprised of immature fish," Wenner said. "In 2003, 68 percent of the fish were less than 12 inches, and now most average only 9 inches.
"It doesn't make any sense to nail these fish at 3-years old. The cropping of the smaller sized sheepshead is not the best way to harvest the species."
Overall, the inshore fishery of South Carolina is in pretty good shape. With some tweaking here and there and a better understanding of the life history of these fish and their management by stakeholders, South Carolina could become an even better place to fish.