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Every fisherman has a tale about the one that got away, and captain Christiaan Pollitzer of Bulldog Charters on Hilton Head Island is no different.
"I used to take a group of guys from Sun City on about eight to 10 trips a year," Pollitzer said. "We'd go after snapper, grouper, you name it. But once these restrictions hit, they just figured, 'What's the point?'"
Pollitzer is part of a local charter fishing industry that he says has been "definitely affected" by recent federal regulations prohibiting the capture of several sought-after fish, including red snapper, grouper and sea bass.
"Fortunately for us, we have a strong tourism season," he said. "Otherwise, these regulations would have already put us out of business."
The measures by the Charleston-based South Atlantic Fishery Management Council seek to restore species that biologists believe have been overfished for decades. They're mandated by the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006, which calls for stringent catch limits to be in place by the end of 2011.
As a result, Pollitzer now has to throw back any such fish his clients catch, instead of filleting them for his clients.
"I have to send them ... to eat tilapia now," he said, referring to a fish commonly farmed overseas and sold in the U.S., "instead of the fish they'd been catching all day."
Dave Fleming of Mighty Mako Sport Fishing Charters on Hilton Head said the restrictions are frustrating, given that he sees no shortage of the fish his clients aren't allowed to keep.
"Trust me, I've seen sea bass out there all summer," he said. "They're there in huge numbers. You should be allowed to keep just a couple."
The problem, he said, is that local guides have to adhere to the same measures as fishermen in southeast Florida, as the council's jurisdiction covers coastal waters from North Carolina to Key West.
"It should be done on a state-by-state basis," Fleming said. "To lump us all into the same category is unfair to charter groups around here. There's a certain percentage of folks that won't pay $500 if they're not going to be able to bring anything home."
He also questioned the accuracy of the information the council uses in formulating its regulations.
"There's no budget to do studies now," he said. "If these scientists notice a trend in Florida, they'll shut things down here, and that's it."
Attempts Tuesday to reach a council representative for comment were unsuccessful.
But Mel Bell, director of fisheries management for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said the research used in determining the measures was comprehensive.
"It's a scientifically rigorous process," Bell said, adding that the council uses information provided by various states' natural resources agencies.
"Nobody on the council does this lightly. They know there are real people's livelihoods on the line," Bell said. "This is all about reducing fishing mortality. And it's getting better, but we're not there yet."
Wally Phinney, who operates Sea Wolf Charters in Beaufort, said he understands the council's reasoning but resents its timing.
"They could have done this 15 years ago, but they waited and waited until a crisis existed," he said.
Phinney said he lost about 40 percent of his full-day trips in the past year because of the rules, and his isn't the only business suffering.
"A lot of people have been hurt," he said. "I wouldn't recommend that anyone go into this business right now."
Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.