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Retired fisheries head gets S.C.’s highest civilian honor
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Retired fisheries head gets S.C.’s highest civilian honor

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David Cupka, third from left, was presented with the Order of the Palmetto award on behalf of Gov. Henry McMaster by SCDNR board members Dr. Mark Hartley second from right, and Duane Swygert, far right. Cupka was introduced by SCDNR Director Robert Boyles, left.

CHARLESTON COUNTY -- Recently, David Michael Cupka returned to the halls of the state’s Marine Resources Center in Charleston. Cupka was one of the division’s very first employees in 1970, and he went on to serve as its director of fisheries management and play a pioneering role in the study and protection of fish, shellfish and other marine life in South Carolina and beyond.

It was in recognition of this work that Cupka was awarded the state’s highest civilian honor: the Order of the Palmetto. Presented in honor of a lifetime of extraordinary achievement or service to South Carolina, the award has been granted to outstanding citizens by the governor’s office since 1971.

“His contributions have made South Carolina a recognized leader among the coastal states in the area of marine fisheries conservation and management,” wrote South Carolina Senator Sandy Senn in her nomination letter for Cupka. His nomination also included letters from present and past directors of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and the regional fishery groups on which he served.

“David has been a stalwart champion for our marine resources – a pioneer in cooperation and stewardship across state lines,” said SCDNR director Robert Boyles at the award ceremony.

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Born in Charleston in 1945, David Cupka studied marine science first at the College of Charleston and then at Florida State University. In 1970, he returned home to join South Carolina’s newly created Marine Resources Division, whose first director was tasked with developing a world-class marine research center for a growing team of biologists.

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Cupka worked on a wide array of species and projects over his 35-year tenure with the Marine Resources Division, overseeing work on everything from dolphins to artificial reefs to shrimp. He founded several of the division’s longest-lived and best-known programs, including the Artificial Reef Program and the Marine Gamefish Tagging Program. He served on nearly 20 regional and national fisheries committees over his career, cementing South Carolina’s status as a key player in regional marine science and policy.

After retiring from SCDNR in 2005, Cupka continued to advocate for sound fisheries science and management as an at-large member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He similarly represented South Carolina on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for 22 years.

Even today, wrote former SCDNR director Dr. Paul Sandifer, “David is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable people around with regard to fisheries management processes and the involvement of the public in these processes.”

Fish are never far from Cupka’s mind, but these days he stays busy as a purveyor of rare and out-of-print books on South Carolina' history through Palmetto Books, a side business he’s operated for several decades. David and his late wife, Kay Cupka, met at SCDNR, where she worked in administration for 32 years before retiring. Today, Cupka enjoys spending time with his daughter and granddaughter, traveling, horseback riding and bowling.

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“David Cupka is one of those all too rare and precious gems of a person,” said Sandifer. “He has dedicated the entirety of his professional life over four-and-a-half decades to the management of South Carolina's wealth of marine resources.”

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