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Update: Hilton Head reels back proposed fishing ban

Hilton Head Island is reeling back a proposed rule that would have limited fishing on island beaches during its busy tourist season.

The proposal was borne of some residents' fears last fall that surf fishing could be attracting sharks to the shallows and might pose some kind of danger to swimmers.

But that's simply not true -- "zero percent" of shark bites in South Carolina have ever been related to nearby fishing, said Robert Boyles, deputy director for marine resources with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

"We have no documented evidence that shark bites are directly associated with fishing," he told Town Council's Public Safety Committee on Monday morning. "We're concerned the proposed ordinance sends the wrong message."

Committee Chairman Lee Edwards and Councilwoman Kim Likins agreed. They will ask the Town Council to squash the proposed rule later this month.

As proposed, the ordinance would have prohibited fishing on all of the island's beaches from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from the Friday before Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The full Town Council considered the rule change earlier this month in an attempt to respond to residents' concerns. But Mayor David Bennett, Edwards and local fishermen cried foul at the idea.

"As anyone who's been around the water knows, there are many, many sharks out in the water where people are swimming," said Russell Patterson, a Hilton Head attorney and avid fisherman. "They don't bother people. It's very, very rare. We don't have a shark problem on Hilton Head."

"We have a tradition of fisheries here" in South Carolina, added David Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club. "It's unlike any other state, and we need to protect something like that."

Shore Beach Services lifeguards agree and uses a slew of policies to protect swimmers from sharks, said Shore Beach director Ralph Wagner on Monday.

If a beach patrol is notified or sees a fisherman catch a shark, they will ask that fisherman to stop for the day to avoid attracting any others, Wagner said. The town already has rules prohibiting "chumming," a method of baiting that attract sharks and to keep fishermen away from certain designated swimming areas during the summer, he added.

Shore Beach Services issues about 500 citations to fishermen violating those rules each year, almost all during the summer months, Wagner said. But that pales in comparison to the more than 1.65 million visitors the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce says visited the island last summer, he said.

Wagner recalls only 10 shark bites along Hilton Head beaches over the past 25 years, including one confirmed bite in October and another unconfirmed bite late last summer.

"There's a perception that surf fishing attracts sharks that are not already there," Wagner said. "There are sharks in the water. We see them every day. We move people out of the water when we see one ... but it's not like they aren't there."

Shore Beach Services also has never encountered a swimmer being hooked by a fisherman casting a line into the surf, and there have been only a few instances of a swimmer stepping on a broken hook, Wagner said.

Instead of a ban, town leaders could consider adding more specific language to its existing rules to codify Shore Beach Services policy to ask fishermen to move away from groups of swimmers, Likins and Wagner suggested.

The city of North Charleston has a specific rule to that effect, and the town should consider adopting a similar provision, Likins said.

The council is expected to consider denying the fishing ban at its meeting March 1.

"It seems to me that our current rules are working just fine," Edwards said. "If you think about 10 shark bites over 25 years -- that's a pretty minuscule number, especially when you think of the millions of people in the water.

"I'm one of 'em, so are my kids," he said. "I don't think there's a problem."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and on Facebook at facebook.com/IPBGZach.

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