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Biologists make progress on plaice restocking program


CHARLESTON COUNTY – In May 2021, lawmakers funded the development of a storage program for young plaice in the state’s waterways. Biologists from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources are now moving forward with the project, with plans for facility renovations, genetic sequencing, a collection of adult fish, and visits to plaice culture facilities underway. Southern plaice is one of the state’s most iconic and sought after saltwater fish. Biologists recently reported that the number of plaice in the area is at historically low levels, including in South Carolina. Lawmakers responded last spring with a series of legislative changes designed to combat decline, including stocking – which involves raising and releasing young fish into local waterways to help protect the wild population . Lawmakers also took the opportunity to increase some saltwater license fees; some of the money from some of the increased fees will support the new plaice seeding program.

The SCDNR storage program is one of the oldest in the country. For three decades, staff have followed an ethically responsible and ‘do no harm’ approach to the stocking of saltwater fish in coastal South Carolina waters, conducting extensive genetic research to ensure that the The stocking has no harmful effects on the existing wild population. This genetic information, coupled with long-term monitoring surveys from SCDNR that target plaice, allows biologists to determine the relationship between hatchery-reared fish and wild fish in state waters – and therefore the effectiveness of ‘a restocking program. SCDNR biologists initiated and refined the agency’s flagship red drum storage program over three decades, during which they released more than 30 million young red drums into estuaries across the state.

Plaice, however, is a more delicate fish. Their short and unusually complicated life makes plaice more difficult to cultivate than species such as the red drum and cobia. Because they are groundfish, they also require more space than currently exists in the SCDNR facilities. Plans are therefore underway for major renovations to the Waddell Center, the SCDNR’s dedicated facility for storage research in Bluffton. Staff are also beginning to modernize the hatchery facilities at the Marine Resources Research Institute in Charleston to meet the needs of the program.

SCDNR biologists are expected to visit colleagues at two different facilities in Texas to learn more about the infrastructure used in their plaice seeding program. The Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina has generously offered to cover the costs of two of the three SCDNR staff who will be traveling to Texas.

“Over the past 20 to 30 years, several universities and facilities have worked intermittently with southern plaice,” said Associate Marine Scientist Dr. Aaron Watson, who will be part of the team traveling to Texas. “We are excited to visit facilities that are in production and learn from the people who have faced and overcome many challenges that we know we will face here in South Carolina. “

The team also coordinated with collaborators from North Carolina to Florida to begin collecting genetic samples of plaice from across the region, as well as developed genetic tools that will later allow biologists to monitor efficacy. of the restocking program.

Finally, biologists have begun the exciting work of capturing and studying adult plaice, or spawning stock, which will eventually be used to spawn and produce young plaice for stocking.

Ethical seeding takes time – biologists believe they will complete basic research on genetics, life history and spawning within three to four years and begin the first small-scale experimental releases of young folds by the fifth year.

“While producing southern plaice at a scale for inventory enhancement represents a significant challenge, we are excited about the opportunities this program presents to improve protocols and expand our inventory enhancement footprint in the state.” said Dr Watson.