Saving Port Royal Sound's cobia is totally up to us

March 28, 2011 

Last week, I talked about the history of cobia in Port Royal Sound and how fishing for these "brownies" didn't really take off until 10 years ago. Port Royal Sound is the only place on the entire planet that thousands of cobia -- many pregnant -- swarm into annually (around the end of April on through May).

The controversy over these particular cobia centers on two main sticking points: Are the fish there to mate and possibly use the sound as a spawning ground? And is the catch limit of two fish per person per day too generous?

Do I think Port Royal cobia are being overfished? Most definitely. I love to fish for cobia as much as the next guy but when I go out there nowadays, I am lucky to find a spot. Boats are lined up just a few feet from each another as far as the eye can see. I am talking hundreds and hundreds of boats from the mouth of the sound on up and past the Broad River bridge. It is an amazing sight.

Last year I observed that the number of cobia caught in Port Royal Sound plummeted. It didn't surprise me at all because for three consecutive years prior to last the number of fish taken was staggering. Some boats I observed took up to 10 to 15 fish a day and did that every single day of the migration.

So what did they do with all that fish? Mostly they were sold to restaurants and often without the correct permits. And here is the part of that story that really gets my goat: Some, and I emphasize the word "some," were charter-fishing boats. When I would confront these people about the number of fish they were taking, the answer was nearly always "I have to make a living in order to feed my family."

I know what it is like to struggle to make a living but when your entire living is based on healthy fish stocks, why on earth would you risk the chance of killing off that livelihood?

To further illustrate how many cobia a charter boat (or recreational fishermen) can legally take in a day, consider this. Say a boat can carry six people plus the captain. That translates to 14 cobia per day they can take legally. But being a charter boat, you might have two trips per day with different people on board each trip so that number goes up to 26 fish per day. Luckily though, most local recreational fishermen and charter fishermen practice catch and release along with good sportsmanship. For example, Capt. Bill Parker, captain of the charter boat Runaway, has managed to talk all the charter boats docked at Hudson's Restaurant to impose their own set of regulations on cobia. Starting this year, each boat will only take three fish a day.

If only the rest of us would follow Capt. Bill's lead.

Having fished for cobia for nearly 45 years, I know a few things: First, a single cobia has enough meat on it to feed a small army. Secondly, during April and May, nearly every one of the cobia between 45 pounds to around 75 pounds is a female ready to drop her eggs.

The really big girls might be past their prime, like the state record cobia caught by the Hilton Head Island boat the Tuna Hut, weighed in just shy of 93 pounds -- when she was cut open, her egg sacks were amazingly small. A cobia's nickname is a "crab eater" and that was all she had in her stomach -- 15 calico and blue crabs.

So what is the bottom line when it comes to our Port Royal Sound cobia fishery? My answer is this: good sportsmanship and catch and release by the people who fish in Port Royal Sound.

I watch in amazement as people gaff a small cobia, realize it's too small and dump it overboard with a giant hole in its side. I see others cut the line and leave two sets of treble hooks dangling from a cobia's mouth.

I know how exciting it is to catch the biggest fish of your life, but think before you stick it with a gaff. And if you already have a couple of fish in the boat, release the rest. Those big fish are the future of this heavily pressured fishery.

Good sportsmanship and catch and release saved our redfish fishery and look at it now. It is better than ever. So think before you take that next big cobia, because unless we all change out ways, Big Brother will do it for us.

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