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Grouper ban strains Myrtle Beach area restaurants

It may be a few months before James Clark, the executive chef at Waterscapes at the Marina Inn in Myrtle Beach, serves up another grouper platter to his patrons.

Most of the fish he cooks come from Murrells Inlet, and the four-month grouper ban enacted by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council means no grouper for his restaurant.

The ban - which started Jan. 1 and runs through April 30 - prohibits commercial and recreational fishermen from keeping the shallow-water grouper that is caught in federal and state Atlantic waters from North Carolina to Key West, Fla., as well as state waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fishery managers and conservationists say they've done it to protect the species during its main spawning season because it is overfished, but many chefs, fishermen and fish market owners along the Grand Strand are frustrated by the ban's effect on their livelihoods.

"The people that's deciding how I live ain't got a ... clue about what's going on in that ocean. They have no idea what I go through," said Reese Hair, a boat captain in Murrells Inlet. "It's killing the prices. It's killing the restaurants. It's killing the mechanics that work on our boats ... We're going to be out of business before long."

Hair also fishes for vermilion snapper, amberjack and triggerfish, all native to the coast, but these fish typically make up a much smaller portion of his catches.

"I went from really having a fair paycheck to no paycheck," he said. "Up until now, I've never worried about my credit, and I've got three more months of this to go through."

Ted Hammerman, owner of the Mr. Fish Seafood market in Myrtle Beach, said his bait sales for grouper fishermen have taken a hit from the ban.

"It's truly affected us - when you sell at least two to four tons of bait a week, and we're now selling two tons a month at best," he said.

Kenyon Seafood in Murrells Inlet will likely lose 50 percent of its business, thanks to the ban, said owner Wayne Mershon.

"If I'm not packing fish, I'm not making money," he said.

Some restaurants are keeping grouper on the menu, but are using imported grouper from Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama.

"There is no difference, except our local ... fish is sometimes a little bit firmer. That's something I've noticed, but nothing consequential," said Hammerman. Drunken Jack's Restaurant & Lounge in Murrells Inlet is awaiting an order of grouper from the Gulf of Mexico, said David McMillan, co-owner.

"Right now, we're just kind of taking it day by day and week by week and looking at the product and the availability," he said. "Before we would compromise the integrity of what we serve, we would take it off the menu."

Hair said he's concerned about the long-term effects of less expensive imported grouper on local fishermen.

"When my grouper comes back on line and I tell them I want $5 a pound for a fish, they're going to laugh," he said.

Clark said the entire debate is bittersweet.

"Of course I want the grouper to rebound and I really want the fish to be sustainable, but my concern is that the ban has been put into place with some possibly false information, I think."

The data used to make the fishery management decisions are outdated and in many ways, not very accurate, said Tom Swatzel, a member of the 13-seat South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

In December, the council voted 7 to 6 to enact the ban. Swatzel voted against it. The council is responsible for the conservation and management of fish stocks off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and east Florida to Key West.

"Really at this point, it's nothing more than a big guesstimate," Swatzel said. "It's unfortunate that so many people are so impacted economically when we're using such poor data."

The council is using a lot of data that is decades old to determine the stock assessment, Kenyon Seafood's Mershon said.

"Nowadays, they could throw six divers on a research vessel and actually see what is down there," he said. "They don't have to just go by a guess. There's just so much research that could be done. Even the council admits that there's incomplete scientific data, but yet we're going by the 'best data available.'"

Adam Kirby, a fisherman, chef and co-owner of the Bistro 217 restaurant in Pawleys Island, called it a "lose-lose situation.

"You're taking away people's livelihood by saying you can't go fish for grouper," he said. "But I don't think it would take too long for those fish to come back. Lay off for them for a little while. There's other fish in the sea."