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South Carolina’s Blue Crab Bill On Hold

But proponents see a path to passage …

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Efforts to advance a bill (S.955) regulating the harvesting of blue crabs in South Carolina stalled this legislative session. Blue crabs, often referred to as soft shell crabs, are currently free game for fishermen in the Palmetto State. Proponents of regulation cite the crustacean’s declining population as justification for instituting a licensure program aimed at rebuilding their numbers. However, some fishermen worry the legislation could impede their way of making a living.

State senators passed the regulatory framework earlier this year, and the S.C. House of Representatives took up and amended the bill. However, it wasn’t debated on the House floor or passed this legislative session. A last ditch effort to append an unamended version of the legislation onto a separate House bill – H. 4386 – means the push for regulation continues.

According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) species snapshot, the blue crab – referred to as Callinectes spidus (or beautiful swimmer) – is a “cherished resident of South Carolina waterways that humans have enjoyed eating for millennia. Blue crabs support one of the state’s largest and oldest fisheries and play an integral role in the coastal food chain as both predator and prey.”

(Click to View)

Blue crabs (Getty)

Unfortunately, “in recent years, legal-sized crabs caught in SCDNR’s crab potting survey (conducted in the fall, when adult crabs move out of creeks and into more open waters) have been falling below average,” according to the agency.

As it stands, South Carolina has taken a laissez-faire approach to blue crabbing with year-round crabbing open to residents of any state. SCDNR estimates about 350 commercial fishing operators currently harvest crabs, with some 45,000 recreational crabbers also harvesting crabs. Droves of out-of-state fishermen have flocked to South Carolina’s shores to avail themselves of this regulatory scheme, as the Palmetto State is the last state on the East Coast to have a deregulated fishery.

South Carolina senator Chip Campsen – an outdoorsman and avid fisherman – told this media outlet he’s interacted with dozens of people who’ve lamented the decline in the state’s blue crab population, something he’s noticed anecdotally himself. Campsen wanted a more quantitate measure of the crab population, so he authored a budget proviso in 2021 designating funds for SCDNR to conduct a study.

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According to Campsen, the inquiry revealed “the catch of blue crabs (was) off 68 percent from from 2005 to today, and it keeps going down.” Campsen said he drafted S. 955 in “an effort to be a good steward of our natural resources.”

The legislation would require commercial fishermen to apply for a limited pool of blue crab licenses – and would allow SCDNR to prevent the harvesting of crabs during closed seasons and in areas of the agency’s choosing.

Blue Crab - Click to enlarge photo
Blue Crab (Via: SCDNR)

Campsen’s bill leaves the dirty work of promulgating the specific rules to SCDNR.

While much of the legislation is aimed squarely at commercial operations (which by volume catch the vast majority of all harvested crabs), it would empower SCDNR to enforce season and location regulations even on recreational fishermen.

If the agency uses its power to restrict when and where non-commerical South Carolinians can collect crabs, recreational crabbers who have grown accustomed to being able to keep any blue crab over five inches which is not carrying eggs, (no matter what time of year or where the animal is caught) would doubtless be displeased.

Under the new legislative schema, recreational fisherman would be allowed to fish with up to five pots.

The bill’s commercial fishing regulations would favor in-state crabbers – who would have to pay significantly less in licensing fees compared to out-of-state applicants.

The proposed limited license system means that all crabbers – even in-state crabbers – would be vying for a limited number of licenses. Those who already have valid commercial fishing equipment licenses – and who can prove the’ve hauled in a significant amount of crab in the last year – would immediately be granted a license. Those who didn’t already have a license could obtain one via a state-administered lottery system. While licenses are transferrable under Campsen’s proposal, the law would only allow for the issuance of 100 total licenses – meaning the total number of commercial blue crabbers would necessarily drop by about two thirds if the program were to be fully implemented.

S.C. House wildlife subcommittee chair Cal Forrest didn’t immediately advance the legislation, citing the concerns of fishermen who had contacted his colleagues in the legislature. House members and senators subsequently compromised in an effort to balance the interests of crabbers and conservationists, resulting in an amended bill which received a favorable report from Forrest’s committee.

Importantly, the amendment would increase the number of current crabbers who would immediately be granted a license based on their current annual crab hauls – abating the concerns of some smaller commercial operators.

But the compromise – and the committee’s favorable report – came late in the session, which – when coupled with a request for debate by multiple house members – jeopardized the passage of the legislation. As a result, the House didn’t debate the bill prior to adjournment.

Robust Redhorse (Via: SCDNR)

Senate proponents of blue crab legislation prepared for this outcome by amending a separate House bill (H.4386). This legislation seeks to protect the declining population of the robust redhorse fish – but was amended to include the Senate’s original blue crab legislation. Despite this amendment occurring after the House committee favorably reported on an amended version of the bill, the version of the blue crab bill attached to the redhouse protections doesn’t include House’s amendments.

FITSNews has spoken with lawmakers who indicate this backtracking decreases the likelihood that blue crab legislation will survive the conference committee process – but other legislative sources have indicated a willingness to compromise at the committee level. These sources remain confident common ground will be reached.

Readers of a recent Charleston Post and Courier editorial on this subject are likely reading these aforementioned (important) details for the first time, as the publication’s editorial board wrote that the legislation “did not make it past the Wildlife Subcommittee of the House’s Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.”

(Click to View)

(Via Statehouse.gov)

As you now know, in reality the committee favorably reported the bill to the full body – and in doing so advanced the legislation so that it could be debated (and potentially passed) by the house.

This didn’t stop the Post and Courier editorial board from ascribing blame to Forrest, quoting his initial take on the unamended bill.

“Sometimes you just have a feeling in your gut something just is not quite right, and I’ve got a feeling that something is not quite right” Forrest said.

The editorial board called this statement “pathetic.”

In the real world, Forrest met with the Senate bill sponsors after this first subcommittee meeting to discuss compromises which would allow smaller commercial operations to automatically retain their licenses.

Think what you will of the issue of regulating fisheries, what seems truly “pathetic” is disingenuously quoting individuals and printing verifiably false information while misleading the public on the true debate going on behind the scenes as legislators draft regulations that will impact tens of thousands of South Carolinians for decades to come.

Forrest didn’t single-handedly stall the legislation, and isn’t even opposed to regulating blue crab fishing (something the Post and Courier staff could have ascertained through a three-minute conversation with the legislator). But acknowledging this means acknowledging that there is a legitimate conversation to be had as legislators seek to strike the right balance between commercial and conservation interests, and it seems the Post and Courier has no interest in providing the public with intellectually honest (or even factually accurate) information about how this discussion has unfolded.

FITSNews acknowledges the state’s legitimate role in the protection of shared public resources, and that all available statistics indicate the Palmetto State’s blue crab population is a resource in need of protection. But even if South Carolina’s shores were down to their last blue crab breeding pair, there would be no excuse for a publication as well-respected as the Post and Courier to ignore reality in their coverage of the issue.

Count on FITSNews to keep in contact with the parties involved in negotiating the future of this legislation, and to continue to provide our audience with factual reports based on our findings.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Via: Travis Bell)

Dylan Nolan is the director of special projects at FITSNews. He graduated from the Darla Moore school of business in 2021 with an accounting degree. Got a tip or story idea for Dylan? Email him here. You can also engage him socially @DNolan2000.

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2 comments

Thomas O'Brien Top fan May 23, 2024 at 7:04 pm

I studied Marine Industries. I also am a Recreational Fisherman. These are the Things that the Bill needs to Include.
1) Make the Fee for OUT of STATE Commercial Fishermen 10 Times as High as State Residents. 2) Outlaw the Harvesting of Female Blue Crabs with or Without Roe Showing! The Females are the Lifeblood of the Blue Crabs! 3) Outlaw the Harvesting of Female Softshell Crabs during the Soft Shell Crab Season! That will be a Significant Help!!

Reply
Jake May 28, 2024 at 1:05 pm

Blue crabs are not often referred to as soft shell crabs. Blue crabs are blue crabs. Soft Shell crabs are blue crabs that have recently molted and before their shell re-hardens.

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