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March 13, 2008

Cobia fishery success relies on DNR research, management, regulations

Some anglers claim it’s the best-tasting fish in the ocean and a thrill to catch. It's also the focus of ongoing research and management efforts by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a marine species of importance to the overall coastal ecosystem as well as to anglers.

The fish is a side-striped saltwater fighter called cobia, and the species has gained in popularity in recent years among South Carolina's saltwater recreational angling community, particularly in southern coastal counties. As the peak time of the year approaches for pursuing cobia in the state’s inshore waters, the DNR reminds anglers of its work with the fish as well as the various regulations currently in place designed to protect and conserve them.

As a coastal pelagic species, cobia exhibit unique behaviors during spring and early summer months and can aggregate in large numbers in some South Carolina estuaries, particularly in the coastal waters of the Broad River, Port Royal and St Helena Sounds. Biologists with DNR do not yet fully understand all of the complexities associated with cobia population dynamics and why the species seems to inhabit specific estuaries during the spring and early summer.  However, DNR continues to organize, support and conduct different multi-disciplinary research projects, including stock enhancements, monitoring assessments and tagging studies to better equip fisheries managers and scientists with information to help understand this species and make informed decisions. 

Cobia have been a popular fish among saltwater recreational anglers along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for several decades, and their size combined with their outstanding quality as a food fish have given them marketability as a commercially sought after species as well. "The combined qualities of being a real energetic fighter and also highly desirable as table fare can work against a fish like cobia, presenting special challenges related to their management and long-term conservation," says Mel Bell, director of the DNR’s Office of Fisheries Management. In South Carolina, cobia are taken in both offshore and nearshore waters as well as inland marine waters. While the state records about four to five thousand pounds of commercial cobia landings each year, the bulk of which come from offshore waters, the vast majority of cobia landed in South Carolina are taken through the private boat and charterboat sectors of the recreational fishery.

"Combined growth in the number of saltwater recreational anglers in the state with an increasing popularity of cobia fishing, most notably in the inshore waters of Beaufort County, have provided fisheries managers, conservationists and concerned anglers with sufficient motivation to ensure that we have a good understanding of the biology, life history and stock condition of this species, in addition to a clear understanding of the cobia fishery in place," said Bell. "All of this information is critical in allowing us to make the best possible recommendations and decisions we can regarding appropriate regulation of this species. We want to make sure we have healthy cobia stocks and a healthy, balanced cobia fishery well into the future."

At the DNR’s Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton, biologists have stocked many thousands of cobia into the Broad River, an effort that allows biologists to monitor the species’ migration and determine the exact timing of their movements back into the estuary as it relates to spawning behaviors. To date, about 60,000 cobia have been tagged and released since the initiation of a tagging project for this species in 1989, with 100 percent of those being released into the Broad River. DNR scientist Mike Denson, who has designed much of the research and ongoing projects related to cobia, said: "The research will provide us with insight as to why cobia are moving back into the estuaries—whether it is to spawn or feed—and why the Port Royal and St. Helena Sound estuaries are of particular importance to this species." The complex scope of the research will also provide DNR with a structure of the overall population and how fishing pressures in South Carolina may impact this structure.

Many types of fishing for cobia currently exist, including recreational, commercial and charterboat efforts. From data obtained by DNR surveys and data logs, most of the landings of cobia by commercial anglers usually take place in federal waters off Georgetown and Horry counties during the late spring and early summer. Recreational data and charterboat data analyzed by DNR indicate that the vast majority of landings of cobia occur during the months of May and June in state waters off of Beaufort and Jasper counties. Landings tallies are analyzed from logbooks and trip tickets that charterboat captains, commercial anglers and licensed wholesale dealers are required by law to submit through the various permitting protocols. Importantly to note, in addition to the informational resource that this reported information provides to DNR fishery managers, these figures are also used by federal fishery councils as part of a multi-step method for determining the status of fish stocks, a benchmark for effectively crafting rules and regulations governing the species.

Important regulations are in place to complement these research and monitoring efforts and protect cobia from overfishing and detrimental impacts on coastal stocks. Anglers are reminded of federal and state recreational and commercial laws that specify the taking of only two cobia per-angler per-day, with a 33-inch minimum fork length size limit. An additional requirement states that cobia must be landed with head and tail intact. The state laws in place mirror the federal fishery regulations for this species, which were implemented jointly in 1990 by the South Atlantic and Gulf Marine Fisheries Commissions. Commercial sale of cobia in South Carolina is limited to licensed commercial anglers only, and the daily legal number of legal sized fish may be sold only to a licensed South Carolina wholesale fisheries dealer. Individual anglers may sell their recreational bag limit of two legal-sized cobia per-day, but they must have a South Carolina commercial fishing license to do so, and may only sell to a licensed wholesale dealer. 

Fisheries managers and scientists with the DNR realize the importance of Atlantic Coast cobia stocks, and are particularly focused on gaining an improved understanding of their use of South Carolina’s coastal waters as either short-termed visitors or long-term residents. "While overall cobia management is the responsibility of the federal fishery councils, we want to make sure that we are providing these fish with adequate, appropriate, and complementary regulatory protection while they are passing through and residing in our own state waters,” said Bell. "At the moment we are particularly focused on improving our understanding of just how important this annual springtime aggregation of cobia in the waters of Beaufort County may be to local and coast-wide cobia populations in the long run." Since these fish are very predictable in their behavior in inshore waters each year they are certainly susceptible to heavy fishing pressure. However, if anglers will strictly obey the current laws pertaining to the cobia fishery and apply a good measure of their own self-discipline and sound conservation practices, this will go a long ways towards ensuring there are plenty of cobia available for years to come. If the state’s fisheries professionals determine that the current laws are inadequate or ineffective in protecting cobia stocks, then other more restrictive measures may be warranted in the future.  

Anglers can play a vital role in protecting this popular fishery by being alert to violations of the law. Reports of violations can be made anonymously through the Operation Coast Watch program, which was developed to help citizens report natural resource violations, including those of saltwater recreational and commercial fishing laws, as well as marine environmental laws. The Operation Coast Watch number (1-800-922-5431) is toll-free and available 24 hours a day.

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.


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