Beaufort News

Cobia mercury warning doesn't worry local anglers, restaurants

Local fishermen and restaurateurs doubt a state warning to limit consumption of cobia will have much impact on the desire to catch and eat the popular saltwater fish.

Citing concerns about mercury contamination, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control officials on May 9 advised people not to eat more than one meal per month of cobia, which some consider to be one of the tastiest fish caught in South Carolina.

State officials added cobia to the list of species with warnings after collecting samples from fishing tournaments during the past few years, DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said.

Bryan Bobinchuck, chef and part-owner of Catch 22 restaurant on Hilton Head Island, said the warning hasn't deterred anglers or customers.

Bobinchuck, who frequently fishes local waters, said anglers are still pursuing cobia as usual. Customers have been ordering it as usual, too, he said.

The warning, it seems, "has not scared anybody off," he said.

The warning added cobia to a list of four other saltwater fish that carry consumption advisories because of mercury pollution: shark, swordfish, larger king mackerel, and tilefish.

Officials at area sportfishing clubs don't expect the warning to disrupt the local fishing business or the annual cobia tournaments. Cobia season lasts from April to June and typically peaks in late May.

Dave Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club, said anglers will continue to enjoy cobia fishing, although they might release their quarry more.

If restaurants decide to continue serving cobia, they should debate how or if to warn customers of the risk, he said.

"I think the restaurants are the ones that have the real dilemma," Harter said.

Bo Von Harten, president of the Beaufort Sportfishing and Diving Club, said he would have no problem serving cobia to friends and family.

Cobia are found in the eastern United States, from the Florida Keys to New England, and in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. They can reach 6 feet long and as much as 100 pounds. Cobia are popular because of their size and taste, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Much of the mercury found in fish builds up in their tissue over lifetimes of exposure to the toxic metal. That means the biggest fish are the ones most likely to contain high mercury levels. Scientists say a major cause of mercury in fish is industrial air pollution that rains back on Earth and slowly contaminates fish.

Most freshwater rivers, from Columbia to the coast, carry mercury warnings to limit consumption of certain fish, including largemouth bass and bowfin.

DHEC's annual advisory also reminded people to limit consumption of largemouth bass from the Catawba River basin between Columbia and Charlotte. PCBs are polluting those fish. The agency first issued PCB warnings for the Catawba basin last year and expanded those warnings in winter. State officials are still investigating the source of the industrial poison.

Sammy Fretwell of The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.