The season for landing large, fighting cobia in Beaufort County is around the corner -- and so are possible limits on the number local commercial and recreational anglers can catch.
At a joint meeting of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort sportfishing clubs on March 15, cobia fishermen will learn about restrictions the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is considering that would comply with a federal law designed to stop overfishing.
Currently, recreational fishermen are limited to two cobia per person per day, with a 33-inch length limit.
Proposals, which would take effect next year if adopted, include keeping that limit, reducing it to one cobia per boat or even closing the cobia fishing season entirely, according to the council's deputy executive director, Gregg Waugh.
Charter captain Christian Pollitzer with Bulldog Charters on Hilton Head Island, said cobia fishing is a big draw for Beaufort County, and he has clients who come from out of state every year just to pursue the fish.
Beaufort Sportfishing and Diving Club president Bo Von Harten, who operates a seasonal fishing charter, estimated cobia accounts for about 20 percent of his business.
Local fishermen don't see the need for such drastic changes, Pollitzer said.
"This is our livelihood. As fishermen who make a living on the ocean, if the fishery needs protecting, we'll sign off on it," Pollitzer said. "But we, so far, have not been presented with any data that supports what they're doing."
Pollitzer and other fishermen have challenged the data the council uses to make regulations. The council already has set catch limits for types of snapper and grouper and banned fishing for black sea bass and red snapper.
The council has done no stock assessment of cobia, Waugh said -- meaning it doesn't know how many are in the region it governs, which stretches from North Carolina to the Florida Keys.
The regional approach to regulation is another point of contention. Dave Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club, has invited Mike Denson, a scientist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, to the meeting to share his extensive research on cobia in Beaufort County waters.
Operating mostly from the Waddell Mariculture Center in greater Bluffton, Denson and his team have discovered that cobia in the Broad River are genetically distinct -- they are different from cobia in other shores and don't mix with them.
For Harter, that's an argument for regulating Beaufort County cobia separately from fisheries along the rest of the south Atlantic coast. He said educating local cobia fishermen on Denson's research will allow them to make well-informed comments when the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council holds public hearings in April on proposed limits to cobia and other migratory fish.
"Our concern is that there really seem to be certain areas that are really good cobia fisheries, and of course, we are one of them," Harter said. "We're not even sure they're taking the right approach."
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council might consider regulating cobia and other fish on a state-by-state basis in the future, Waugh said. But for now, the federal Magnuson-Stevenson Act requires the council to set restrictions on all federally regulated fish by the end of 2011, he said.
"The first step to reduce overfishing ... has a high cost associated with it," Waugh said.