MURRELLS INLET, SC - For 10 years, Marcus Ortagus has been captain of his fishing boat “Lady Madeline.”
Month after month, he and the boat take off from Murrells Inlet hoping to return with mounds of fish.
It’s a profession he chose more than two decades ago and hasn’t regretted.
“It’s a completely different world. When I step on that boat, I’m a fisherman, I leave this world behind, it’ll be here when I come back,” Ortagus explained.
Although he loves it, it's a constant challenge.
“It’s no play time. We put in 10, 12, 14 hours a day, sometimes more than that. After six or seven days, you’re glad to see home. It’s always good to come back home and see land,” Ortagus said.
But currently, the business is tougher than when he first set sail.
With increasing regulation in place, fewer people are able to make a living fishing professionally.
“It’s just changed how we fish, it’s made it harder and it’s took a toil. A lot of people have not been able to stay in the business because of that because in this business you have to produce fish. If you don’t, it don’t take long and you get in debt and you’re out of business and you got to really know what you’re doing,” Ortagus said.
United States fishermen are regulated on how much they can catch, what they can catch and even when.
The federal regulations aim to help protect fish populations, but they don’t always protect the local industry, especially when foreign fishermen don't have to play by the same rules.
The Government Accountability Office estimates 90% of all seafood sold in the United States is imported.
With this increase comes a rising concern over what is coming with these fish.
Gray Investigates TV found government reports reveal evidence that the Food and Drug Administration has failed to meet 2011 mandates to increase inspections at foreign food facilities.
In 2016, the FDA only inspected 2% of seafood processors and didn’t visit any overseas farms or labs.
The Government Accountability Office discovered the FDA inspected only 2% of imported fish.
In the products they did test, the FDA found evidence of banned drugs in around 10% of the fish.
Even though many Grand Strand restaurants are just blocks from the ocean, imports are still prevalent.
Rick Baumann, founder of Murrells Inlet Seafood, explained the imports began when the area became overfished.
“Technology made it easier for fishermen to find fish and the agency stepped in with size limit and closed seasons and so forth like that, which just opened the door for more and more imports,” explained Baumann. “They were already here offering a cheaper alternative to the higher price local fish and you know if you go to a budget restaurant that has low prices on plates of fish, you can pretty much bet that it is coming from imports.”
While it’s no longer possible to stock every local fish all year long, many in the business say even when local fish are an option, not everyone chooses local over imported fish.
Dylan Foster runs Wicked Inlet Seafood. His business connects fisherman like Ortagus to local restaurants.
He said it’s hard to keep the local fishing industry alive.
“We’re battling these import products and we’re battling regulations and we’re battling a lot, the weather and all kinds of things that we face on a daily basis,” he said. “We all have families that are relying on this industry and have been for generations and if we don’t support it and we don’t protect it, it will disappear and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Imports isn’t the only thing the local fish industry is battling.
Read part two of the investigation where we’ll show our results when we went undercover to local businesses, bought a variety of fish and had its DNA test to find out if what you’re ordering in the Grand Strand is really what you’re getting.