The upcoming removal of sheepshead from the snapper/grouper complex has fisheries managers scrambling to account for the state’s flourishing population. This past July, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which manages fish stocks within the federal 200-nautical mile limit off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Florida, removed sheepshead from federal management and turned them over to the states.

South Carolina’s sheepshead fishery takes place predominantly within state waters, from inshore waters out to three miles off the beach, and since 1983, the fish has been managed as part of the federal snapper/grouper complex, included in a 20-fish aggregate creel limit. SCDNR is looking at passing some sheepshead-specific regulations.

“As of Jan. 1, 2012, there will be no size limit or harvest restrictions for either commercial or recreational anglers on our sheepshead stocks,” said Wallace Jenkins, an SCDNR biologist. “It will be up to the state to decide how to manage this fishery, and to do that will require legislation passed through the state’s General Assembly.”

During October, fisheries managers from the SCDNR held four regional public meetings with stakeholders to discuss the future management of sheepshead. At the center was a proposal, drafted by fisheries managers and presented to SCDNR’s Marine Advisory Committee, to establish a 10-fish creel limit with a 12-inch minimum length (fork length) for sheepshead.

“The (DNR Board) agreed to accept these regulations with the caveat that we conduct the shareholder meetings both to educate the public and seek opinion from users of the resource,” Jenkins said. “The proposed possession limit of 10 is to restrain those who fish the winter spawning aggregate. We landed on a 12-inch (fork-length) limit, based on a 13-inch mean size of sheepshead surveyed. Sheepshead reach sexual maturity at 12 inches and weigh about three-quarters of a pound. Compare that to a 13-inch fish, which averages a pound-and-a-half, and a 14-inch fish, which averages three pounds. We felt the 12-inch size was the most equitable for all users.”