“Our goal in this operation was to disrupt the illegal take and sale of adulterated flounder and other finfish in South Carolina so that legal flounder gigging can be preserved for future generations,” said SCDNR First Sgt. for Beaufort County, Adam Henderson.
Arrested at the landing were James Wooten, 33, of Bluffton; Dawson Loper, 21, of Bluffton; and David Festerman, 32, of Griffen, GA. Multiple charges were brought against Wooten and Loper based on weeks of intensive surveillance tying them to illegal harvest and sale of fish to a Bluffton-based food truck business and two area restaurants. Festerman was assisting the two men on the night of the arrests.
Wooten faces 21 counts of harvesting undersize flounder; 21 counts of harvesting over the limit of flounder; one count of harvesting undersized tripletail; nine counts of selling fish with no commercial wholesale dealer’s license; two counts of having no commercial fishing license; as well as a boating equipment-related charge and two charges of driving under suspension. Loper was cited for six counts of undersized flounder; one count each of over-the limit of flounder and undersized tripletail; as well as one count each of improper display of commercial decal on boat, no outboard motor decal, and insufficient PFDs on board. Festerman was charged with four counts of having undersized flounder and one count of having no saltwater fishing license.
Charges in this case have also been brought against individuals connected with the restaurants that Wooten was selling the men’s illegal catch to. Under South Carolina law, any person engaged in selling fish or fishery products must have the appropriate commercial licenses, and individuals who knowingly purchase seafood from an unlicensed source can also be charged. Evidence gathered during the investigation implicated staff at Hudson’s Seafood House and ELA’s on the Water restaurants on Hilton Head Island, and the Maiz Taqueria Food Truck in Bluffton.
Maiz Taqueria owner Isaac Jimenez was cited for one count each of unlawful purchase of saltwater fisheries product, having no proper bill of lading and having no wholesale dealer’s license. Earl Nightingale Jr., the owner of ELA’s, was charged with two counts of unlawful purchase of saltwater fisheries products. Hudson’s Chef Eric Seaglund was charged with one count of unlawful purchase of a saltwater fishery product, and one count each of possessing undersized tripletail and undersized flounder.
“I’m extremely proud of the work and effort put into this case by our Beaufort County officers,” said Lt. Andrew Godowns, SCDNR’s Law Enforcement supervisor for the coastal region south of Charleston. “It’s a critical time for our flounder population, and curtailing this type of activity is essential for the recovery of this species.”
The three men arrested were taking fish by gigging at night, which is a common method of fishing for flounder, especially. Flounder populations along the East Coast, including in South Carolina waters, have seen marked declines recently. Saltwater commercial fishing and wholesaler’s licenses are issued by the SCDNR Marine Resources Division’s Commercial Licensing Office, and the landing data provided to SCDNR by legitimate commercial fishermen and wholesale seafood dealers is crucial to effectively and efficiently managing these resources.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers, at the urging of SCDNR fisheries biologists, passed more stringent regulations for flounder taken in state waters, limiting the number caught by any method, including gigging, to 5, per person, per day (or 10 per boat) and increasing the minimum legal size for “keeper” fish to 16 inches. Those stricter harvest limits for flounder went into effect July 1, 2021. Even under the previous limits (minimum 15 inches), many of the flounder that the men were charged with in this case would have been considered undersized. During the investigation, SCDNR officers discovered that some of the restaurants knowingly and specifically requested undersized flounder be delivered to them, so that the fish would better “fit on a plate” when prepared whole.
“SCDNR views the illegal harvesting and commercialization of our state’s resources as a violation against all South Carolina residents,” said the agency’s Deputy Director for Law Enforcement, Col. Chisolm Frampton. “Our officers will continue to pursue any and all criminal violations associated with this activity. We are extremely proud of all the officers involved in this case and appreciate their dedication to preserving our flounder fishery.”
Citizens with information to report about any type of wildlife or fisheries-related violation are encouraged to contact the SCDNR’s Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-922-5431 or via the SCDNR TIPS app. You do not have to reveal your identity.