While the deep freeze may have passed, lingering coldest temperatures in the Lowcountry continue to have deadly effects on the area’s fish.
As a result, officials at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday they are asking anglers to voluntarily catch and release all spotted sea trout until the end of September.
Spotted sea trout are the second most popular recreational fish in the state, and they’re particularly vulnerable to low water temperatures.
Still, adverse effects caused by the winter weather have not just stopped with the trout.
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Anglers have reported thousands of dead fish — including mullet, red drum, sheepshead and tarpon — and shrimp washing up along the shores of tidal marshes and saltwater reservoirs, also known as “impoundments.”
Marine life can die off in mass quantities when water temperatures remain in the mid-40s for any length of time.
After a rapid and steep decline in December, water temperatures across the coast plummeted in early January. Temperatures in Charleston Harbor have remained in the mid- to low-40s for nearly two weeks, and shallow tidal creeks reached even lower, according to DNR.
On Hilton Head Island, tarpon living in the impoundments across the island were hit the hardest, according to Trent Malphrus, owner and captain of Palmetto Lagoon Charters.
“All the exotic fish that aren’t supposed to be here this time of year — tarpon, snook, ladyfish — pretty much all of them got wiped out by the weather,” Malphrus said.
Unlike the Atlantic Ocean and Port Royal Sound, water temperatures in impoundments — such as the Palmetto Dunes Lagoon System — drop almost as quickly as air temperature does.
“It takes days on end to change the water temperature in those (the ocean and inshore waters), unlike impoundments, so fish have better survival rates,” Malphrus said.
During the winter of 2010-2011, tarpon in Hilton Head impoundments died off in high numbers and the species took the past seven years to fully recover, he said.
Still, Malphrus sees die-offs like these as merely a part of life.
“It happens. We go through these spells every eight, 10, 12 years and it’s just a way of life here,” he said. “Eventually this was going to happen again, there’s no way around it.
“But (when it) comes to local (native) fish that live here, that would be the real heartbreaker.”
Luckily for anglers in the Beaufort County area, the most popular fish species in the area have remained relatively unharmed compared to the waters in Charleston and northern South Carolina.
Al Stokes, executive director of the Waddell Mariculture Center, has spent the past week gathering information and reports on deaths from recreational and commercial fishermen, local DNR law enforcement, crabbers and anyone working near the waterways.
He has received less about 100 reports of dead sea trout in the area and very little of red drum.
“We’ve been pretty lucky. Our reports are very low,” he said.
This season ranks as the fifth-coldest winter water temperatures since 1950, and two months of winter still remain.
The lower that water temperatures reach and the longer they stay there, the more Lowcountry fisheries are at risk.
“The cold is lingering, so we’re not out of it yet,” Stokes said. “But it definitely could be a lot worse.”
How to help
To report sightings of dead or lethargic fish email SCDNR scientist Dr. Joey Ballenger at BallengerJ@dnr.sc.gov. Include detailed information about the location, date, species, and number of animals seen.