Rescuing the cobia — in Lowcountry, nationally
All you have to do is mention the word “cobia” around here and it triggers a response in anglers much like ringing the bell for Pavlov’s dog.
It wasn’t always that way though.
If my memory serves me correctly, which it rarely does, the cobia craze got started in the mid- to late 1980’s. From year to year the number of boats targeting these fish reached such a fevered pitch that you pretty much could step from boat to boat in Port Royal Sound and never once get your feet wet.
That is until that fishery crashed and burned, which led to closing state waters in that area during May, the prime spawning period, so that stocks could rebound.
So why am I talking about cobia when the peak season hasn’t really begun? I’ll tell you why.
All last week, I spent eight hours a day where every other word spoken had “cobia” in there somewhere. “Cobia are,” “cobia will” ... I heard it all.
Now in my second year in a four-year term as South Carolina’s representative on the South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council with an emphasis on cobia and mackerels, I attended a week-long conference in Charleston with representatives from coastal states from Virginia to Florida, along with scientists, state Department of Natural Resources representatives, commercial and recreational fishermen all gathered in an attempt to come to a conclusion about the state of cobia populations along the eastern seaboard.
Talk about a fish out of water. All the graphs and pie charts and scientific terms rattled me big time those first couple of days.
I know I have said it before in previous columns but I’ll say it again: I absolutely hate math. After every slide projected up on the big screen, showing graphs put together by statisticians, I just wanted to scream, “Can you put that in layman’s terms please?”
But then they would know what I already knew, and that was I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
It took me a while to realize that the major difference between myself along with one charter fisherman from North Carolina and most everyone else attending the conference was this. The scientists and statisticians used formulas and mathematical equations to evaluate the cobia fishery while myself and the charter captain relied on year by year visual observations while out on the water.
Was there a difference between my evaluation of our cobia fishery and the scientists evaluation? Most definitely.
At one point I even got up the nerve to ask, “How many of you have fished for cobia at least once over the past two years?”
Out of the 30 or so attending, only three or four hands went up. Seeing that, it was as if someone had turned on the faucet, or in my case my mouth, and I went for it, bringing up the amount of pressure being put on these awesome fish from Florida to Virginia, the seemingly unstoppable migration of people moving to coastal areas then buying boats and targeting cobia, along with environmental affects like stormwater runoff and pharmaceuticals entering our waters. I was a runaway train.
But thankfully my comments were taken to heart, or so I think, as several officials later commented how helpful it was to hear about cobia from someone who is out on the water so much and sees things that may impact the fishery in the future.
As it stands this year, South Carolina state waters south of Edisto are closed the entire month of May. After that, anglers are allowed one cobia per person and a boat limit of three in those state waters.
Both in federal waters and state waters, cobia must have at least a 36-inch fork length if they are to be harvested.
As for federal waters this year, you can harvest one per person with a boat limit of six. Here is where it gets personal. Six per boat?
This is my opinion, but nobody, and I mean no one, needs to kill six fish a day.
In the Gulf of Mexico, there is a two-fish boat limit, and states like Virginia have voluntarily adopted a three-fish-per-boat limit with any fish over 50 inches to be released.
What I would give to a two- or three-fish boat limit in state and federal waters.
But until that happens, if it ever does, it’s going to be up to our anglers to give our cobia a break.
The conference data showed cobia sizes are in a downward trend, so it’s up to every boat owner reading this to make their own boat policy. Two per boat is a whole lot of meat, so do what’s right.
The way I see it, if we don’t police ourselves, Big Brother sure as heck will.