Although temperatures are on the rise in South Carolina, last week’s winter weather spell could affect that state’s spotted sea trout for years to come.
Biologists at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources are watching the species very closely and are encouraging the public to submit any reports of dead fish.
Sea trout spawn in spring and summer in South Carolina, and they are the second-most popular type of inshore species to catch in the Beaufort County area behind red drum, according to David Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club.
They are also particularly sensitive to cold, and excessively low water temperatures can result in mass casualties, according to DNR.
During the winter seasons of 2000-2001 and 2010-2011, for example, sea trout along the South Carolina coast died in large quantities.
“We’re not expected to know the full impact for several months,” said Erin Weeks, a spokesperson for DNR. “... We’re looking at fish surveys to see how this has impacts on all fish, but the spotted sea trout are what we’re primarily concerned about.”
As temperatures rise, biologists expect to see more dead fish show up in state waterways, because the cold weather has kept them at the bottom of the sea floor, according to Weeks.
As of Wednesday, DNR had received nearly 100 reports — from Hilton Head Island to Murrells Inlet — about dead sea trout.
Biologists at DNR are expected to have some initial answers about the immediate effects on the spotted sea trout population in April and have an even picture by late summer, Weeks said.
“This is an issue of concern coast-wide,” she said. “It’s too early to speculate at this time, but we know that it can sometimes take several years for the stock to fully recover.”
In April 2011, samplings from nine South Carolina estuaries showed a “consistent and dramatic decrease” in the number of spotted sea trout — the lowest population recorded in 20 years.
Thanks to the Port Royal Sound system, Beaufort County missed the worst of that cold winter kill and this year may be the same, according to Harter.
“Our sea trout don’t migrate out to the ocean,” he said. “They spend their entire life in estuaries, because we have deep holes where they can get protection.
“When you go up north to Charleston and Myrtle Beach or south to Florida, they don’t have these deep holes inshore, so they’re more likely to have fishkills than we are here. That’s the nature of the Port Royal system.”
In 2001 and 2011, when it took the stock several years to recover, the department asked individuals to voluntarily practice catch and release practices, but no regulatory actions were taken.
On Wednesday, state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet, went to Twitter to encourage fishermen to release all spotted sea trout to help limit adverse effects on the species.
In North Carolina, the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries closed its spotted sea trout season last week because the fish were washing up on shore dead. The fishery is expected to open up again June 15.
To report any fish kills you see along the SC coast, send a detailed description (species, number, time, date) and location to SCDNR scientist Joey Ballenger at BallengerJ@dnr.sc.gov.