After writing back-to-back columns about the dire situation confronting our Port Royal Sound cobia, I decided to sit back and see if my words made any difference in the way fishermen treated these great fish.
Between those two columns, I received more than 200 emails and tons of phone calls, and with the exception of a couple of folks who swore (quite literally) that I was full of bull, the rest swore they would release ALL the cobia they might catch this year in the sound.
I hate to say it, but one statement rose to the top like cream by some of those who pledged their support: "I'll only take this one."
Even some of my best friends have latched onto some 50-plus-pound cobia in the sound, all of which were pregnant females ripe with eggs, and when the moment came to gaff it or release it, the gaff won out almost very time.
Am I mad? No, but I am disappointed.
Gaffing "just one" large female cobia is a false statement because a 44-pound female carries, on average, close to 1 million eggs. So you are gaffing hundreds of cobia that might have survived the hatching.
Second, if each one of the hundreds of boats that are trying their best to catch a cobia every day follow the same trend of "only this one cobia," it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure the end result.
Then, last Friday evening, I went to the Port Royal Foundation to hear DNR's marine biologist, Mike Denton, talk about the cobia issue. Though I knew much of what he might say, I learned a couple of things that opened my eyes even wider.
I had always believed that our cobia wintered down in South Florida and migrated from as far away as the Keys, but according to studies, our cobia go no further south than around the Georgia-Florida state line. In addition to that pearl of wisdom, our specific group of cobia roams from that point to around Virginia.
I can't say how many cobia are caught that far north, but I suspect we are in the "hot zone" for this particular group. That made me even more concerned because with this being the case, the number of cobia in our zone is finite, even those that hang around our offshore artificial reefs.
Furthermore, since it's now known that the group that annually migrates into Port Royal Sound to mate during this part of the year are from a very specific genetic group that doesn't mix with those cobia further offshore, Mike threw out a term that really got me: the "illusion of plenty." It's estimated that right now, there may be as few as 500 "true" Port Royal Sound cobia left. Of that number, only a portion are females, and since cobia act very much like salmon returning to the same area they were born to breed, anglers that fish in angler-named places such as the Parris Island rip, the Turtle, Christmas, Boca and The Bridge might see quite a few fish on occasion.
These places are structure-oriented, and when anglers find one of these breeding hotspots, the word gets out. To me, it's like when one buzzard finds a smashed possum on the road and within a short period of time, it becomes a buzzard o'rama. When the cobia are fished out of that spot, another prime breeding spot is found, and the hordes descend on that until it, too, is fished out.
See where I'm going with this?
Port Royal Sound is a big body of water, but it's certainly not big enough to handle that much pressure.
Enough of the gloom and doom, though, because a few groups have stepped up to the plate and changed their ways to help the cobia. The Sun City Fishing Club's annual cobia tournament has decided this year will be strictly catch-and-release. I just wish all these other annual cobia tournaments would do the same -- either catch-and-release, or base it on a size limit.
I have designed decals that have been distributed to tackle shops around the area that read, "Over 43", Set 'Em Free!" The decals are free, and though they might not change anything, at least they will create awareness. Folks, we have to start somewhere, and I'll wager my reputation that if we release the large females for the next couple of years, we might just have cobia when our kids grow up.
But unless we do something, and do it quick, I fear the writing is on the wall.
Reach outdoors columnist Collins Doughtie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-816-6608.