Pitch in and help keep Lowcountry the 'Cobia Capital of the East Coast'

cdad@hiltonheadisland.netApril 28, 2014 

Cobia are curious fish. The one on the right is hooked, and the shadow on the left is another cobia checking out what's going on.

COURTESY OF COLLINS DOUGHTIE

The cobia are coming.

I won't even attempt to predict exactly when they'll arrive with this weirdo year we have had thus far, but sooner or later they will arrive. From the tons of emails I have received, the cobia are going to be greeted by hundreds of anglers hoping for the "big one." Not all that long ago, folks around here didn't give a hoot about cobia. Instead, everyone was king mackerel fishing. Oh, how things have changed.

Once called the "Cobia Capital of the East Coast," Port Royal Sound lived up to that reputation. There were days when I would start fishing at 8:30 or 9 a.m. and by noon I had caught 20 or more cobia. As the number of anglers chasing cobia increased, the number of cobia I caught in that same period dwindled. In the past two or three years, I've been lucky to get one or two fish in an entire day.

So what happened?

Port Royal Sound is an amazing body of water, the likes of which can't be found anywhere else along the entire Eastern seaboard. Our huge tides probably have a lot to do with the health of the sound, as four tides a day flush in baitfish and flush out contaminants.

If my memory serves me correctly, I began to see the writing on the wall around six or seven years ago -- especially when it had to do with the number of cobia that were being taken on any given day. I began voicing my concern -- to say I was unpopular with some of the charter captains is an understatement.

But I believed the cobia would come to Port Royal Sound in May and June and use it as a breeding ground. Why did I think this? On more than one occasion I had seen small male cobia rolling on top of the large females -- and though I am no marine biologist, I know lovemaking when I see it.

Then there were the charter captains I would see coming in the dock with a dozen large, pregnant females every day -- sometimes twice a day. When I would approach some of these folks and plead that they curb the greed that was driving them, their retort was always the same: "There is no scientific proof they are breeding here ... so bug off." The limit for cobia is two a person each day, so they weren't breaking the law, but what they were doing was driving a nail into their own coffin.

After years of research, much of it done by the Waddell Mariculture Center, it turns out these cobia were indeed using Port Royal Sound as a breeding ground, and the fish that would return here every year were from a very specific group. This was determined by DNA sampling.

I hate to say "I told you so," but I told you so.

Knowing this, the Waddell Mariculture Center began capturing male and female cobia from the Port Royal group, breeding them and releasing nearly 50,000 juvenile cobia back into the Sound. To illustrate just how depleted the original Port Royal group is, DNA sampling of cobia carcasses caught in Port Royal Sound during the past couple of years showed that nearly 70 percent of those caught were ones released by the Waddell Mariculture Center.

So here is your chance to help the plight of our Port Royal cobia. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 10, the Department of Natural Resources -- in conjunction with the Waddell Mariculture Center -- will be in Port Royal Sound with special capture boats so they can get both male and female cobia for breeding. To help is as easy as spending a relaxing day cobia fishing. Should you catch a cobia, leave it in the water, get on your VHF radio (channel 69), and DNR will come to you and put the fish in special tanks for transport. The cobia they are looking for must be caught between the Broad River Bridge and the mouth of Port Royal Sound. Prizes and rewards will be given for the largest cobia and the most cobia donated.

The future of Port Royal's nickname as the "Cobia Capital of the East Coast" is in your hands. One day and one cobia can make all the difference.

God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.

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