COLUMBIA — The most feared sharks in the ocean are being targeted for protection in South Carolina.
While great white sharks, monstrous fish with ferocious reputations, increasingly have been documented off the South Carolina coast, they still aren’t common. Two Charleston-area lawmakers want to make sure anglers don’t contribute to the demise of great whites.
A bill introduced last month by Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, makes it illegal to catch and keep a great white in South Carolina waters. Great whites are already protected by federal law, but Limehouse and Rep. Mike Sottile want to help the effort with a fishing ban specific to the Palmetto State.
Anyone who hooks a great white would be forbidden from hauling it into a boat and would have to release the shark immediately, according to the bill, which Limehouse said is intended to raise awareness about conserving great white populations.
“What do you do if you’re catching a tuna and all of a sudden a great white is on your line?” Limehouse said. “This [bill] tells you what to do. Cut the line and let the fish live.”
The bill, introduced Jan. 23, will be discussed this week by a House subcommittee in Columbia.
Limehouse and Sottile, R-Charleston, said they don’t know of anyone who actively attempts to catch great whites, and they doubt it would be easy to catch one. But the legislation will make sure people don’t try, they said.
“People need to leave them alone,” said Sottile, a former mayor of the Isle of Palms. “There aren’t that many in this area that I know of. Once you wipe them out, they’re gone.”
South Carolina generally has jurisdiction to regulate saltwater fishing within 3 miles of the coast.
Great white sharks are the largest predatory fish in the ocean, according to National Geographic, growing to an average size of 15 feet. Some, however, exceed 20 feet and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Great whites are responsible for fatal attacks on humans in parts of the world, particularly in California, Australia and South Africa, where they are believed to be more common.
No more than a few hundred great whites are believed to inhabit East Coast waters, but they’re being noticed more often along the S.C. coast and at all times of the year, said Bryan Frazier, a shark researcher with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Once thought to visit South Carolina from the Northeast as the water cools each winter, great white sharks also are being documented in Palmetto State waters year round, Frazier said.
“In the summer, they tend to be off our shore in deeper waters,” Frazier said. “But we are seeing that they may not be as restricted to water as cold as we thought. There may be more tolerance for warmer waters.”
Frazier said great whites haven’t increased in number, but scientists now are actively looking for them. That’s due in large part to a tracking effort that began several years ago. Scientists have tagged dozens of great whites at different locations to see how they move. Some that were tagged in New England traveled to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The most well known is a shark nicknamed “Mary Lee,” a 16-foot female documented dozens of times off the Palmetto State’s shoreline in the past two years. Shark tracking data show that Mary Lee was off the South Carolina coast numerous times in the winter but also last summer.