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Columbia Business Monthly

Salt Life: The Carolinas Rank in the Top Five for Economic Impact from Saltwater Fishing

Dec 05, 2023 03:40PM ● By Allison Williams

"Go, Jim, Go!" 

The crew shouts as the sharp, wicked-looking spear of a blue marlin emerges, then quickly dips back into the dark blue water. It’s a beautiful, nearly cloudless day about 50 miles off the South Carolina coast, and Jim Johnston is at the helm. He’s been chasing billfish — the umbrella term for the sailfish, spearfish, swordfish, and many types of marlin with the spear-like bill — for most of his 79 years. 

Johnston isn’t the only one. Yes, he’s perhaps one of the most well-known anglers, a two-time Georgetown Blue Marlin tournament winner and holder of the record for South Carolina’s largest swordfish with his second cousin and long-time fishing partner, Bony Peace, but there are many others. 

U.S. recreational saltwater fishing generated about $98 billion in sales in 2020, according to NOAA Fisheries, a unit of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When it ranked economic impact by state, North Carolina was second only to west Florida, with South Carolina in the No. 5 spot. Because that report focuses on species caught in large numbers — seatrout, striped bass and tunas — the Carolinas may have even greater significance when you factor in the billfish that Johnston and others pursue. Anglers chasing highly migratory species, HMS for short, accounted for $510 million in economic impact thanks to the more than 87,500 tournament and non-tournament trips in 2016 alone. 

Formula 1 of fishing

HMS are the ultimate game fish — they weigh up to 1,800 pounds — that migrate in temperate and tropical waters, roaming long distances. Chasing them requires a large boat, 35 feet or longer, equipped with sophisticated electronics, enough fuel to travel up to 50 nautical miles and back, bait, and a crew, including a captain and perhaps two or three mates. A single entry for a large tournament could run $10,000 to $12,000 and sometimes as much as $35,000. 

When Ellen Peel, president of The Billfish Foundation, describes the sport, she thinks of it as the Formula 1 of fishing. “An equivalent would be the super-sophisticated car racers,” she says. Her organization began with a mission of conserving billfish and has expanded to advocate for responsible fisheries management. It still maintains the world’s largest billfish tagging database.

Billfishing isn’t considered a professional sport like the bass fishermen of Major League Fishing or Bassmaster Elite Series, but you might not know it from the purse size of popular tournaments. North Carolina’s Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in Morehead City had a purse of nearly $6 million this year. That’s widely considered the country’s second-largest tournament by payout, topped only by the $10.5 million purse at Maryland’s White Marlin Open in Ocean City.

Billfishing in the Carolinas

Big Rock brings thousands of spectators to Morehead City, some for the six days of fishing, others for the auxiliary events like a fashion show and pig pickin’. Things are quieter in the Palmetto State but no less devoted to events like the state-supported South Carolina Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series.

In 2021, 931,000 anglers spent $689.9 million while fishing in South Carolina, according to the American Sportfishing Association. Though this includes freshwater and saltwater anglers, tourism and recreation along the South Carolina coast contribute $3.86 billion to the state’s gross domestic product. Marine recreational anglers made nearly 12 million trips in 2019, hauling 12.4 million pounds of fish and shellfish. 

More anecdotal evidence is the privately owned boats lining marinas between Charleston and Myrtle Beach. Jim Johnston first caught a croaker at age 6 in Pawleys Island. Today, he runs a custom, 59-foot Spencer Yacht he calls Big Sky for the Montana countryside he loves to hunt. Johnston thought he might one day own a Montana ranch. “That is my ranch,” he says about the ocean-worthy Big Sky. “I’m still fishing it hard.” 

Owners like Johnston captain their own boats, but others often hire professional captains like Mike Glaesner of Charleston, who received the 2023 S.C. Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series’ Carroll A. Campbell Award. The award is named for the late governor and founder of the tournament, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year. The series supports a college scholarship and conservation efforts, including artificial reefs and one of the longest-running billfish surveys. 

Economic impact of sport fishing in North Carolina

In the old days of tournaments, fish were routinely landed in boats and brought to docks for weighing. Today’s tournaments typically operate on a points system. The catch is photographed and released with only the largest fish, usually blue marlin, brought back to the dock for weighing. Teams are docked points if they harvest fish below a certain weight. 

At Big Rock, the minimum weight for a blue marlin is 400 pounds. The winner of this year’s largest cash prize, at more than $2.7 million, was Sushi with a 484.5 pounder. Sushi’s win came after a massive blue marlin weighing 619.4 pounds was disqualified because of mutilation. With the disqualification went the $739,500 bonus for the first boat to catch a marlin over 500 pounds.

While South Carolina holds its own in terms of tournaments, North Carolina has more docking facilities. It’s also known for its many high-end boat makers, from Jarrett Bay in Beaufort to the many boat makers in Dare County, including Paul Spencer, Scarborough Boatworks, Bayliss Boatworks and others. You might see their boats at Big Rock but also Pirate’s Cove Tournaments, Hatteras Marlin Club Blue Marlin Release Tournament, and the N.C. Billfish Series, to name a few more contests. 

In 2021, 2.4 million recreational anglers (freshwater and saltwater) spent $1.4 billion while fishing in North Carolina. The sheer size of its coastline, more than 3,300 miles, and placement at the southernmost migratory range of many northern species of fish and northernmost range of many tropical species puts North Carolina in a unique position for recreational fishing. 

Future trends and predictions

Tournaments tend to grab headlines for their eye-popping prizes and drama over days of fishing for giant blue marlin in sometimes extreme conditions. The real work is perhaps quieter and behind the scenes. The crews that run boats worth millions and perfect the art of baiting billfish. Scientists who track and conserve billfish. Coastal businesses that run marinas and sell fuel and food. The list goes on. 

These days, Jim Johnston prefers fishing for pleasure to competition and doesn’t mind when fish winds up on his grill instead of the record books.


Jim Johnston Looks at Changes in Recreational Fishing

Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, it was on trips to the coast where he caught the fishing bug. His father was a golfer, Johnston says. “He couldn’t give a riff about fishing,” he says, laughing. 

Nonetheless, it must have taken a supportive family and many trips to Pawleys Island and nearby Georgetown, where Johnston would eventually work for angler and boat dealer Wallace Pate. Johnston later bought Pate’s business, a boat dealership in Georgetown, that Johnston ran until retirement. He also had a boat storage business and was a partner in the Georgetown Landing Marina. 

His passion today is taking anglers out for their first big catch. “What I love the most — still do — is seeing first-time anglers catch a billfish.” Five blue marlins caught this summer were firsts for their anglers, including his 14-year-old granddaughter.