Cold water temperatures in the wake of the winter storm that struck the area Jan. 28-30 have spelled trouble for saltwater fish species in the estuaries of the Carolinas, particularly spotted seatrout.
Spotted seatrout are the most susceptible to succumbing to cold water of the most popular fish species anglers target in local estuaries. Occasional fish kills in the wintertime are a fact of life along the Carolina coast.
“Geographically, just based on where we live you’re going to have a fish kill every three to five years,” said Capt. Mark Dickson of Shallow-Minded Inshore Charters in Little River.
Sporadic occurrences of dead trout and red drum have been reported in Georgetown County, but the more widespread events have taken place to the north. Spotted seatrout have been closed to harvest in all North Carolina waters for recreational and commercial fishermen until June 15 by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.
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Along the Grand Strand, two reports of dead fish have come in from the Sampit River in Georgetown, according to Stephen Arnott, Associate Marine Scientist for the S.C. Dept. of Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Research Institute.
One was near Friendfield Plantation, where numerous dead trout and red drum were seen in ricefield ditches and on the banks of the river being scavenged by turkey vultures and bald eagles. Also, two dead trout and one red drum were reported in the river near Front Street.
In addition, dead trout were spotted in the Intracoastal Waterway between Georgetown and McClellanville.
Arnott has been and will continue monitoring S.C. DNR’s inshore fishery surveys, including the trammel net surveys done monthly in seven locations along the S.C. coast including Winyah Bay.
“The impression I get so far is it is an intermediate impact. If I was a betting man, that’s what I’d be hedging my bet toward,” said Arnott. “We need to see what the numbers from the testing come out to in the next couple months.”
In North Carolina, the estuaries of Brunswick County, particularly those in the southern part of the county near Calabash, Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle Beach, did not experience a wide-spread kill of spotted seatrout.
The biggest kills in the Tar Heel state’s vast estuarine waters occurred where the Pungo River flows into the Pamlico River near Belhaven and further north in the Alligator River/Albemarle Sound area, according to North Carolina saltwater fishing authority Capt. Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island.
Based on eyewitness reports, Dilsaver estimates tens of thousands of trout succumbed to the cold in those areas, prompting the closure in North Carolina.
The furthest south a confirmed kill documented by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries occurred was about three miles upriver in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. The kill was small in numbers of fish.
Dilsaver noted in Brunswick County estuaries located close to the Grand Strand the impact was minimal.
“There were a few small instances, 10 fish, a dozen fish, (found dead) in the Lockwood Folly and Shallotte River,” said Dilsaver. “Those are just anecdotal kills, small kills I heard of anecdotally. They were nothing confirmed, nothing the state is reporting on.”
The biggest hit taken by spotted seatrout in Brunswick County after the storm and before the species was closed to harvest on Feb. 5 was likely from gigging by commercial anglers.
In North Carolina waters it remains legal to gig spotted seatrout during winter months in instances when the fish are lethargic and unable to swim away to escape.
Commercial anglers are allowed to harvest 75 spotted seatrout per day in North Carolina when a closure is not in effect. In South Carolina, spotted seatrout and red drum cannot be harvested by gig during December, January and February.
Whether the latest storm, that departed the area on Thursday, will cause more mortalities among trout and red drum remains to be seen.
Trout become lethargic when the water temperature is below 45 degrees for a prolonged period of time. The water temperature in North Inlet, located just north of Winyah Bay, was in the lower 40s Thursday afternoon.