Greed and the gaff - the enemies of healthy fishing

June 23, 2011 

If you read my column with any regularity then you know that I am very capable of going on a rant about this or that -- and this is one of those times.

So hold on, because here I go.

With the cobia season starting to wind down, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the 2011 season. Not meaning to sound like Mr. Smarty Pants, but last year I predicted that unless new regulations were put in place, cobia populations in Port Royal Sound would plummet. Why? I guess the No. 1 reason is the increased popularity of cobia fishing combined with new effective techniques of catching cobia. Over the past four or five years, I have watched huge numbers of large cobia taken from Port Royal Sound waters, and common sense told me that if this slaughter kept up, Port Royal Sound's title "The Cobia Capital of the World" would be nothing more than a memory.

Oh yes, I caught flak for my comments, and the usual comeback was "there is no scientific proof that cobia migrate to Port Royal Sound to mate." Even though I have witnessed first-hand small male cobia performing what I believed to be mating rituals with large egg-laden females, the answer was always the same: "Prove it."

From my observations, 2011 was a very bad year for cobia in Port Royal Sound. The numbers of fish were just not there. Another observation was the cobia that were caught in Port Royal were smaller than the fish I was used to seeing in past years. According to biologists, there are two groups of cobia -- the Port Royal group and the offshore group. The Port Royal group has been decimated. Sadly, this doesn't surprise me at all.

Offshore around the artificial reefs it was a different story. The offshore group of cobia were there in pretty good numbers, but once again they just seemed smaller than past years. Before the season really got cranking, all sorts of promises were made regarding the number of fish that would be taken, especially by the charter fleet. One group of charter boats made it known that no matter what, none of their boats would take more than three fish a day. I think that promise lasted all of a week before greed set in. Three fish turned into five fish, then eight fish. So what do you do with that many cobia? I'd bet my first-born they were being sold to restaurants.

Other than selling the cobia to restaurants, no laws were broken. With a limit of two fish a person, the number of fish legally taken is staggering -- especially if you know how to catch cobia. Not tooting my own horn, but I do. My fishing partner Don McCarthy and I went out to the Betsy Ross for our annual one-shot cobia extravaganza, and I stopped counting after we caught 12 cobia in less then three hours. If you know what you are doing, catching cobia isn't rocket science. We had four people on-board, kept six fish and we were done for the year. Those six fish provided each of us with enough meat to feed a small army.

And that, my friends, is the point I am trying to make.

I am not singling out charter boats, but I do have a bone to pick with a few of them. The majority of charter boats here are captained by skilled anglers who pride themselves on good sportsmanship. Unlike recreational anglers who are able to fish one or two days a week, charter boats often fish each and every day. You would think that for people who makes their living catching fish, they would do everything in their power to make sure that no species is overfished. Most of our local captains are great about catch and release, but there are a handful who seem to be hell-bent on catching, killing and selling every cobia they can get their gaff into. I simply don't get it.

I know how hard it is to fight a big fish and then release it. You are pumped full of adrenaline, excitement fills the air, and even though you already have several fish in the box, that urge to gaff is overwhelming. So what is the answer? That remains to be determined but my suggestion is a per-boat limit, and using peer pressure to change the greedy ways.

So there it is, my rant for the week. Maybe now that I have gotten that off my chest, I'll get back to talking fishing next week so until then, keep what you need and release the rest.

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