Fish Tales

April 2024
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Jacqueline Ginther; courtesy of shutterstock; Paul Grimshaw & Paula Player

A Day in the Life of David Player, DNR biologist

08:30 a.m. - The Wicked Tuna restaurant in Murrells Inlet hides a commercial ice house at its ground floor. Wicked Inlet, it's affiliated commercial fishing wholesale operation, processes tons of fresh fish annually. (Inset) Marine Biologist David Player poses with a Red Hind (in the grouper family).

Many visitors to the popular dining and entertainment destination, the Murrells Inlet MarshWalk, may be unaware of Wicked Inlet, a commercial fishing operation that processes thousands of pounds of fresh fish several times each week, many tons of fish annually, all caught just offshore. This commercial offloading also takes places in Little River and Georgetown, among other nearby coastal ports. Snapper, grouper, jack, mackerel, Mahi-Mahi, triggerfish, wahoo and many other species make their way in off the Atlantic Ocean on ice and are processed in the Wicked Inlet icehouse just underneath the Wicked Tuna restaurant. It’s then disbursed to seafood markets, fish wholesalers and local/regional restaurants. Some of the fish makes its way as far north as New York City, but most is consumed right here along the Grand Strand. Yes, fresh locally caught fish served in our local restaurants is not a fairy tale; in fact, The Wicked Tuna owns its own fishing vessels and serves its own fresh fish at its area restaurants here and in Charlotte, N.C.

Also in the Inlet, and a vibrant part of the commercial fishing industry, C&C Seafood, and Harrelson’s boats dock along the MarshWalk and process their catches for local and regional markets.

Keeping a watchful eye on all this fish falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) a statewide agency that shares information with other regional DNR offices and federal authorities for the purposes of maintaining healthy fish populations, called “stock analysis.” David Player, an 18-year employee of the DNR, is one of the marine biologists tasked with a mountain of recordkeeping and observation. He, and others like him, add to the mass of data that helps project future fish stocks by recording the size, age and health of the fish, which ultimately determines the commercial fishing seasons, helping ensure that we all have delicious fresh, local fish to eat for generations to come.

I recently spent part of the day with Player as he went about his duties, and where I learned of the surprising methods he and other biologists use in their all-important work.

(Left to right) The DNR's David Player is a regular visitor to Wicked Inlet; The Black Flag commercial fishing vessel makes it's way in to unload its catch after four days at sea & The Black Flag's crew unloads vermillion snapper, a common fish served throughout the region.

8:30 a.m.

Player, having gotten word that a boat was due in after a four-day run at sea, agreed to meet me in the parking lot of the Wicked Tuna. Shortly after arriving, I began to learn that this kind of rough-and-tumble fishing industry had been cruising along quietly right under our noses amid all the tourism, live music, and restaurant life of the MarshWalk for decades. In fact, the Murrells Inlet fishing industry dates back as far as the 1700s, and Player has been meeting fishing boats in this south strand community for close to two decades.

“Historically, the position that I originally filled was for Horry County,“ says Player, “but I also cover Georgetown, Murrells Inlet and Little River.”  Unlike others who wear the DNR seal on their clothing, Player is not in law enforcement; no guns, handcuffs, or badges, he is strictly into the marine biology and data mining role tasked by the agency.

“We don’t deal with ticketing or violations,” he explains. “I don’t have authorization to do anything like that. Obviously if we spot egregious violations, we call it in, but thankfully that’s very rare. Fishermen will legitimately and accidentally misidentify certain species that look very similar, and I will help them with species identification. Sometimes we have to play detective to see what kind of fish a fisherman has brought in.”

Player, 44, graduated from Coastal Carolina University in 2004 with a B.A. in Marine Science.

“Just out of school, I started working as a contractor for the Feds working with N.O.A.A. as an observer in the Northeast, out on the boats with the fishermen from Gloucester, Mass., down to Calabash, North Carolina. I trained out of Woods Hole, Mass, which is kind of a Mecca in the marine biology world.”

Originally from Greenville, S.C., Player is married to local wedding/event photographer Paula Player and the couple have two school-aged boys. Player’s DNR job is primarily a Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 kind of gig, freeing him up to work Saturdays as second photographer and videographer in the family business.

8:43 a.m.

The boat, the Black Flag, has just docked and the young captain, 25-year-old Joey Bardelli, makes his way toward a small crew waiting to help check in and weigh the catch.

“Usually Fridays and Mondays are good days to catch the boats coming back in,” notes Player, who has gathered the tools of the trade in his hand; a measuring board and an auger meant to dig out the otolith bone from the fishes’ inner ear. The bone, I would learn, tells other biologists with microscopes the age and relative health of the fish by its growth rings in the same way foresters can glean data from the rings of a tree.

“How was the fishing?” asks Player with an affable smile.

“Terrible,” says Bardelli. “We were in big swells, 10-foot waves, the whole time. Couldn’t keep the anchor on the bottom. We had to go to [the waters off] Georgia because the fishing right now sucks. I was 11 hours getting home this trip.”  Bardelli and his crew walk back toward the boat to begin to offload the catch. It’s a small load, maybe 400 pounds in total, not much for four days work and a crew of three, who fish, eat, and sleep on the boat while it remains out to sea many hours away from shore.

“I have a pretty good relationship with most of these guys,” says Player, though he was just meeting Captain Bardelli for the first time. “I’ve been around long enough that most of them know me and we’re fine. There have been situations where I coincidentally show up at the same time as DNR law enforcement and I’ve been accused of calling them in, even though I didn’t. I might get the cold shoulder for a bit. The commercial fishing business is not easy and it’s an aging community. A lot of the experience and knowledge is dying out as the older fishermen retire. A lot of them have even dissuaded their kids from going into fishing because it’s such a hard and dangerous career—and sometimes, depending on what they bring in, it can be a losing proposition. Fishing is not what it used to be.” It seems young Capt. Bardelli's age makes him an outlier among captains.

“The most common fish we see is snapper and grouper,” says Player, “and on a good trip they’re bringing in a thousand pounds of fish, or more. When golden tilefish are running out in the deep water, not quite as far as the Gulf Stream, they’re fished with longlines. Right now, I believe, there are only three longline boats operating in South Carolina. They will set a couple miles of cable with several thousand hooks and they can bring in four to five thousand pounds of fish. There’s a longline boat that comes and goes out of McClellanville; they can only fish in the really deep water. The Black Flag uses bandit reels, typically with just a couple of hooks on each line.

“The law states that an authorized seafood dealer must unload, weigh and process the fish directly off the boats” explains Player. “The wholesale dealers have to comply with a lot of state and federal regulations.”

(Left to right) 09:45 a.m. - Black Flag Captain Joey Bardelli and fish handler Tracy Fisher sort and weigh the catch: vermillion snapper, triggerfish, and amberjack; DNR marine biologist David Player digs in for the otolith bone used to determine the fish's age.

9:12 a.m.

With measuring board and auger in hand, Player makes his way dockside to start sampling. First he records the species In this case, it’s a vermillion snapper (also called b-liner), not to be confused with red snapper, which is currently closed to all fishing. He then performs a little quick surgery digging out the otolith bone. The tiny bone grows with the fish each year, creating a ring. The retrieved bone gets placed in a small envelope to be sent to another set of biologists who slather it in epoxy, and when hardened, slice sections away to count the rings, and therefore accurately age the fish.

“Fish continually grow throughout their lives,” explains Player, “and because of the seasonality they grow faster in the summer and slower in the winter, and it’s all recorded in the rings. This is a bone I can get to without destroying the meat or the look of the fish, so the fish still has commercial viability. It’s noninvasive.” Some of Player’s fishy samples go to Charleston, but the majority go to a lab in Beaufort, N.C.

“Different fish species need to be managed very differently,” he says. “Age and growth rates are all important to managing the fish properly. The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council gets together every year, collaborating with all the state and federal partners in the entire southeast to determine what the status of specific species of fish are. Our data is a big part of that process. Is a fishery overfished, underfished, is it undergoing overfishing—there’s a lot to determine. Then they make recommendations, such as increasing or decreasing the annual quota. We have 50 some odd species that we make these determinations for.”

“Locals who have been around for a while may have heard a lot about red snapper,” he continues. “It was determined years ago that that species was in a lot of trouble, so there was a complete moratorium on any red snapper fishing. Since then, it’s made a tremendous comeback, but even so we have very short seasons and strict limits to maintain this regeneration. The oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico provide the kind of structure that red snapper like, so most of the red snapper you see in the fish case or on a menu is imported from the Gulf.”

Local red snapper may possibly be found this year in season (early July) in markets and on menus for a short time and at a premium price. The more common vermillion snapper has a much longer season and is readily available. Often, it’s referred to simply as “snapper,” though it should not be confused with its red, and more valuable, cousin.

9:45 a.m.

With the fish off the boat, it’s moved into the icehouse for weighing and more sampling from Player. Today’s haul will be an easy one to process. When the fishing is really good it can take many hours. The fish is sorted by species and size. Fish handler Tracy Fisher (what are the odds?) has a great eye and is good enough to do this sorting quickly and easily. Then the sorted baskets are weighed, and the numbers recorded. This is how the fishermen get paid.

Along with the vermillion snapper in today’s haul are some 80 pounds of triggerfish and a smaller number of amberjack, which has at least a dozen nicknames.

Amberjack, considered by some to be a less than premium fish, is a common gamefish around the world, and along the South Carolina coast. It’s tasty enough, but can be problematic. The larger fish are prone to worms in the flesh and it has an unpleasant tasting bloodline, so much of it needs to be cut away and discarded. It’s used frequently in fish tacos, and when just over legal size, prepared simply with lemon and butter. It is a tasty, mild whitefish, very healthy, low in calories and high in protein. It’s one of the least expensive coastal gamefish, sometimes wholesaling for under $5 per pound. Player is able to remove one of the dorsal spines from a triggerfish sample. The bone has the same growth rings as the otoliths and will provide the biologists with the same data.

Player’s favorite fish?

“I love triggerfish. It’s a clean, mild whitefish and is super cheap, especially compared to grouper. For my money, I like it better than grouper.” The price of grouper is expected to rise with the annual quota having been recently reduced.

Once the fish have been sorted and weighed and the receipt given to Captain Bardelli, the fish belong to Wicked Inlet.

“We’re given a copy of the document, so we know what’s been landed commercially,“ says Player. “Virtually all of these fish are subject to annual federal quotas.” Once the quota is thought to have been met, the season may close early, or even be extended the next season if there’s room.

“We’re seeing a lot of changes in the fisheries, but climate change is moving the fish around. Forty years ago vermillion snapper was not at all common, but yellowtail snapper were abundant. It’s now reversed. Some of it is possibly overfishing, some of it is the water temperature changing. We don’t know for sure.”

10:01 a.m.

Player has packed up the requisite bone samples and his data and will travel to his home office.

(Left) 09:58 a.m - Player records the species, in this case a triggerfish, and its size before removing a dorsal spine. The bone will be used to record the fish's age. (Right) 11:35 a.m. - Player in his home office prepares the morning's data, which ultimately will help determine fishing seasons and quotas for some 50 species of common coastal Carolina fish.

11:30 a.m.

Finalizing and preparing the samples for submission and recording the data, Player will work from his home for the rest of the day. Tomorrow’s tasks may take him to Georgetown or to Little River, or even Charleston, but regardless he’ll be home for dinner. Capt. Bardelli and his crew, however, will try to make up for the bad run and will head back out to sea later in the afternoon for another three-to-four-day trip.

“I really love this job,” says Player. “I like to be closer to home and in my own bed each night. When I first started and was working out of Gloucester (Mass.), I would be out on the boat for sometimes two weeks. It was amazing to see the land disappear and eventually see nothing but water for days on end, but I was younger then and didn’t have a family. I like my job here just the way it is.”