"It's worse than we originally thought," SCDNR biologist Mel Bell said, saying that the request is an effort to save as many trout as possible to spawn through the summer. "The only thing we have to compare this with is 2001 when we had a hard winter, but then we saw a lot of dead trout.
"This year, when we didn't see a lot of trout floating we thought maybe we had dodged the bullet. Only after our guys got out there and did some sampling did we have the opportunity to see how much of a problem we have. And we didn't really have a stellar winter (in 2010), either. We took a real one-two punch."
Cold-weather kills involving speckled trout are not uncommon, especially if water temperatures plunge into the low 40s very rapidly or over an extended period of time – both of which happened this past December and January.
SCDNR said the sampling done in nine different estuaries showed a "consistent and dramatic" decrease in the number of speckled trout to levels that were the lowest recorded in 20 years. Most fish sampled were shorter than 14 inches, the legal size minimum.
"We are not particularly encouraged right now," Bell said. "We've had this happen before, and we've recovered. We have every confidence we will recover again, but we're trying to use a non-regulatory method to help.
"If fishermen will restrict themselves now, it will pay off later. The last time we had this happen, it was a five-year rebuilding process."
SCDNR hopes that if fishermen release the legal trout they catch, thereby allowing them to spawn this summer, the fishery will recover more quickly. Trout in the South Atlantic typically spawn from June through September.
"We're hoping fishermen put back as many trout as they can, particularly until they get to fishing this next spawn," Bell said. "We hope we can get a decent spawn and get things turned around."
Because the state legislature sets fishing regulations – limits and size minimums – through legislation, SCDNR does not have proclamation power to close the fishery as neighboring North Carolina did this winter.
After a month of cold-stun kills, North Carolina's marine fisheries agency closed the commercial and recreational fishery for speckled trout for a month, and then reopened the commercial fishery. Recreational fishermen in North Carolina cannot keep speckled trout until June 15.
South Carolina manages speckled trout with a 10-fish daily creel limit and a 14-inch size minimum.