BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. — The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) reports that Conservation Officers in the department have charged three individuals and businesses as a result of a months-long investigation into the illegal commercial harvest and sale of flounder and other saltwater finfish species in Beaufort County.
Three men were arrested and forty-two fish were seized during an early morning arrest at Alljoy Landing in Bluffton on July 10. Thirty-three of the fish were undersized flounder.
James Wooten, 33, and Dawson Loper, 21, both of Bluffton, and David Festerman, 32, of Griffin, GA., were arrested -- Wooten and Loper were charged with illegal harvest and sale of fish to two area restaurants and a Bluffton-based food truck and Festerman was charged with assisting in the crimes.
SCDNR fisheries biologists convinced lawmakers to pass stricter regulations for flounder taken in state waters, limiting the number of fish that can be taken in a day to 5 per person or 10 per boat, and increasing the size of "keeper" fish to 16 inches (from 15 inches). The new regulations went into effect on July 1, 2021.
Wooten was also charged with 21 counts of harvesting undersize flounder and 21 counts of harvesting over the limit, one count of harvesting undersized tripletail, nine counts of selling fish with no commercial license, a boating equipment-related charge and two charges of driving under suspension.
Loper was also charged with six counts of harvesting undersize flounder, one count each of over-the-limit of flounder and undersize tripletail, improper display of commercial decal on a boat, no outboard motor tag, and insufficient personal flotation devices on board.
Festerman was charged with four counts of having undersize flounder and one count of not having a saltwater fishing license.
Individuals connected to the restaurants and food truck who received fish from Wooten, Loper and Festerman also face charges in the case, as SC law says individuals who knowingly purchase seafood from an unlicensed source can also be charged.
SCDNR charged Maiz Taqueria food truck owner Isaac Jimenez with one count each of unlawful purchase of saltwater fisheries product, having no proper bill of lading and having no wholesale dealers license. ELA's owner Earl Nightingale was charged with two counts of unlawful purchase of saltwater fisheries product and Chef Eric Seaglund, of Hudson's, was charged with one count of unlawful purchase of a saltwater fishery product, and one count each of possessing undersized tripletail and undersized flounder.
The investigation uncovered that the chefs had specifically asked for undersized flounder be delivered to them because the smaller fish would better "fit on a plate" when prepared whole.
According to SCDNR officers, even under the previous limits (a minimum of 15 inches), many of the flounder taken in this case would have been considered undersized.