South Carolina’s well thought-out and measured response to the crisis of cobia should be an example for other states, especially several neighbors to the north.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ marine division knew several years ago that it might have a problem on its hands with cobia numbers. Fishermen were all telling the same story: they weren’t seeing as many of the extremely popular gamefish during the spring spawning run in the Broad River and Port Royal and St. Helena sounds as in past years.
SCDNR studies showed that those fish, genetically, were a specific sub-species of a larger population that migrates north each spring and south again in the fall. These fish live off our coast and migrate inshore to spawn, then back out. They don’t start in Key West and wind up off the Chesapeake Bay.
SCDNR knew there were problems. Federal fisheries managers warned of more potential problems late last fall, informing all Atlantic coast states north of Florida that too many cobia had been caught during 2015 and that they could expect some possible restrictions in 2016 to ensure that the annual catch quota wasn’t exceeded a second year in a row.
SCDNR got to work immediately, and when federal officials announced on March 8 that cobia fishing in federal waters would close on June 20, the state already had legislation in the works to change regulations to try and avoid the over-harvest. On April 29, the governor signed a bill that closed the season south of Jeremy’s Inlet on Edisto Island from May 1-May 31 and cut the daily creel limit in the same area from two to one, with a limit of no more than three cobia per boat for that period of time between June 1 and the federal closure on June 20.
Mel Ball, director of SCDNR’s marine division, said, “We were already in the process of establishing the area from Edisto south to the Georgia line ... when this overage occurred.”
Now, contrast this with our neighbors. In late May, the commission that oversees North Carolina’s marine fisheries voted to go out of compliance with the feds. The agency came up with a plan that would extend the season through September, with a lower creel limit, higher size minimum and a division of the cobia pot that was obviously done to satisfy the charter captains north of Cape Hatteras who were the ones who had caught most of the 2015 overage. A week later, the commission that oversees Virginia’s marine fisheries voted to go out of compliance with the feds in state waters, keeping the season open until Aug. 30 but instituting a one-fish daily creel limit (two fish per boat) and a 40-inch size minimum.
The complaint heard from both states? “If we’d had more time. If we’d known earlier, we could have done something.”
Apparently, officials in South Carolina were listening last fall, and our cobia fishery will be better for it.